Written by Avvo Staff

What is joint custody?

Working together for the good of your children
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What is joint custody? It’s a situation where parents who have split up keep sharing responsibility for their children’s care. Since each situation is different, the details of joint custody agreements can vary quite a bit.

How joint custody works

In joint custody situations parents work together to raise their children. It involves both where the children live (physical custody) and major decisions about their lives (legal custody).

Joint physical custody

When parents have joint physical custody, the children spend time living with each parent. Ideally, the parents split their time equally, but this doesn't have to be the case. Schooling, parents’ work schedules, and other issues can all affect how much time children spend with each parent.

The schedule should be one that works for everybody. Parents can arrange schedules in a variety of ways, including:

  • Alternating weeks or months

  • Weekdays with one parent, and weekends plus holidays with the other

  • Six months with one parent and six months with the other

Joint legal custody

With joint legal custody both parents get input on major decisions about child-rearing. This can include many things:

  • Education
  • Medical care
  • Mental health care
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Religious upbringing

Parents may have both physical and legal joint custody. It’s also common to have joint legal custody, with one parent getting sole physical custody.

Joint custody vs. shared custody

Joint custody and shared custody are often used interchangeably, but that’s not quite right. Although they’re similar, they’re actually two different things.

Shared custody treats the parents as one unit, much like they were when they were together. It offers flexibility for parents to work out parenting time and make decisions that are in the best interests of the children.

Joint custody treats parents as separate individuals, each with specific responsibilities toward the child. This arrangement is generally less flexible than shared custody. Many of the details will be spelled out in the custody agreement.

Handling joint physical custody

Joint physical custody means the children live with each parent at different times. When possible, parents work out the schedule themselves. When they can’t agree, the courts will make the decision for them.

The parent with the children handles their physical care during that time. This includes everything from bedtime and meals, to getting to school and extracurricular activities on time.

The arrangement usually works best when the parents live near each other. That makes moving between homes less disruptive to the children’s schedules and social lives.

If one parent wants to move away, the custody agreement may need to be revised.

Handling joint legal custody

Since legal custody involves major decisions about the children’s lives, it works best when parents are able to communicate and compromise.

Unless the custody agreement gives responsibility to one parent, both parents need to agree on all decisions and any changes. Joint legal custody agreements often require mediation for issues that the parents can't agree on.

Child custody laws vary by state, but in general they focus on doing what’s best for the child. If you're thinking about asking for joint custody or want to change a custody agreement, you need to know your options. Consider talking with a child custody attorney in your state to find out more.

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