Joint custody, also called “shared custody,” means that parents still share responsibility for the children even though the parents are no longer together. The scope of the shared custody is broken into two categories: physical custody and legal custody.
Joint Physical Custody
When a parent has physical custody of the children, the children live with that parent. In addition, the parent has responsibility for the children’s physical welfare while the kids are in the parent’s physical custody. When parents have joint physical custody, the children split their time living in each parent’s home.
When parents have joint physical custody, the court will typically approve a schedule detailing when the children will live with each parent. Any parent who refuses to keep to the schedule may risk having the entire custody agreement renegotiated.
Joint Legal Custody
Legal custody means that the parent has the right to make critical life decisions for the children. Life decisions often cover schooling, healthcare, and religious upbringing. When parents have joint legal custody, they must make these major life decisions together. For example, with joint legal custody, one parent likely can’t decide to enroll the children in a specific school without the agreement of the other parent.
Variations of Joint Custody Agreements
Parents can share both physical and legal custody as part of their custody agreement. However, this type of arrange doesn’t necessary always occur. Either through mutual agreement or by court order, the parents can have shared custody in one area but not the other.
One common arrangement calls for one parent to have physical custody while the parents share joint legal custody. However, it’s also possible for parents to share physical custody while only one parent has legal custody.
Shared custody arrangements aren’t just in place after a divorce. Once parents are no longer sharing a home, even if they’re just separated, a shared custody agreement may be necessary. In fact, any parents of children, regardless of whether they’ve ever been married to each other, can seek a shared custody arrangement if they’re no longer living together.
If the parents can’t agree on a shared custody arrangement, then the court will decide each parent’s custody rights. The court’s main concern when defining the custody agreement is to make its decision in the best interests of the children.
Benefits and Challenges of Joint Custody
The benefits of shared custody agreements for both children and parents are obvious. Ideally, those parent-child relationships remain intact and continue to grow. Nobody wants divorce to mean children losing a parent or a parent losing his or her children.
However, shared custody requires a great deal of parental cooperation, which can be challenging for some families. Parents, regardless of their feelings for each other, should be able to work together for the sake of the children. The greatest risk with a shared custody agreement is that one parent might use the children to punish or hurt the other parent. This conduct can happen when a parent fails to follow the terms of the agreement or creates problems while negotiating the terms of the custody arrangement.