The difference between sole custody and joint custody is often misunderstood by divorcing parents. There is added confusion when discussing which parent will have residential custody. Not knowing the difference between these concepts, and what they mean, often creates additional, unneeded conflict between divorcing parents.
Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody. Whether or not one parent has sole custody or the parents share joint custody determines how decisions pertaining to the minor children are made. The areas for decision-making are: (1) medical decisions; (2) educational decisions; and (3) religious decisions. If one parent has sole custody, then that parent makes all major decisions as to the child’s medical care, education, and religion, without the input or approval of the other parent. If the parents have joint custody, then those major decisions are made jointly by the parents, after consultation with one another. There can be variations of joint custody, for example, one parent may be responsible for decisions regarding health care and the other parent may be responsible for decisions regarding religious training. The goal with any custody arrangement, whether joint or sole, is to make sure that good decisions are made effectively on behalf of the minor children. In both joint and sole custody, the parent in possession of the child is responsible for making the daily, routine decisions for the child. Neither sole custody nor joint custody pertains to parenting time that the parents spend with the children.
Residential Custody. With both sole custody and joint custody, a parenting time schedule determines the time that the children will spend with the parents. Joint custody does not imply or presume that the parents will have equal time with the children; rather, joint custody dictates how decisions will be made jointly by the parents on behalf of the children. The primary residential custody of the children is determined by agreement of the parties or by determination of the court. As a practical matter, the parent with primary residential custody merely refers to the parent with whom the children spend the majority of their time. In some cases, because the designation of one parent or the other as the primary residential custodian can create additional conflict between the parties, the use of the term is avoid altogether.