The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Joint Physical Custody

What is joint physical custody?

Joint physical custody (sometimes called "shared physical custody", or simply "joint custody") is a type of child custody arrangement, issued by a family court, that grants the physical component of child custody to both of the parents after a divorce or separation. When joint physical custody is awarded, both parents are considered to be the custodial parents of the child. This also means that neither parent is considered to be the noncustodial parent.

Dr. Robert Emery, Ph.D. states that, "Joint physical custody is definitely an option to consider – it's my preferred option for cooperative parents. But it's only one of many options that can work for divorced parents and for children."

How is joint physical custody different than legal custody or joint legal custody?

The term joint physical custody is derived from two different terms: 1) joint custody, and 2) physical custody.  Physical custody refers to where the child resides. But when "joint" physical custody is awarded, both parents share a significant amount of time with the children.

Physical custody does not imply which parent has decision-making authority for major decisions. Legal custody, by contrast, refers to which parent or guardian has the responsibility to make the important decisions about a child's upbringing. If parents have joint legal custody, then they must consult with one another on big decisions such as religion, schooling, medical care and the like.

Can divorced parents have joint legal custody if they don't have joint physical custody?

Yes. Often divorced parents don't have joint physical custody due to living too far away from each other, yet the share joint legal custody.  Even though one parent is the noncustodial parent and has less parenting time, significant decisions regarding the children are to be made together between both parents; neither parent in a joint legal custody arrangement is able to make long-term decisions unilaterally.

Can divorced parents have joint physical custody if they don't have joint legal custody?

Although rare, this arrangement does occur where both parents share physical custody but one parent has rights under full legal custody to make significant decision regarding the children. This arrangement may allow for parents to avoid conflict since it is structured around one parent being responsible for significant decisions rather than both having to reach an agreement.  This illustrates the concept that child custody is divided into two completely different components: 1) physical custody and 2) legal custody.

What types of decisions does a parent with physical custody make on the child's behalf?

Because physical custody refers to where the child is being cared for, the parent with physical custody still must be able to make decisions about the child when they have the child in their care. This brings up an important point about what decisions constitute major decisions vs. the more minor day-to-day decisions that anyone in a child's care would be expected to make.

The simplest way to explain the types of decisions that are made via physical custody versus legal custody, is to apply an idea we invented that we call the babysitter test.  Essentially, think of the decisions a babysitter might be expected to make as being the same types of decisions that the physical custody component of child custody allows.  Babysitters would make decisions about daily issues, such as what to make for dinner, what time the children should go to bed, whether it is too cold to play outside, etc.  Physical custody allows the same types of decisions.

Legal custody is different.  Again, apply the babysitter test.  In deciding whether or not a child would become Christian, a babysitter would be out-of-line in deciding that for a child.  If a decision would be inappropriate for a babysitter to make, it is likely a "legal custody" decision.  If a decision is a legal custody decision, and the parents have joint legal custody, both need to be aware of the issues and work out the solution together.  

Physical custody decisions, conversely, do not have to be discussed.  It would be impractical for the parent with physical custody at the time to call the other parent and ask how to handle every decision.

What are the benefits of joint physical custody?

Joint physical custody has it pros and cons. The following are advantages of both parents having shared physical custody are:


  • A child can experience a childhood being raised and influenced with each parent. Children usually want a relationship with both parents, and a joint physical custody arrangement can help maintain the connection children have with both parents.
  • Each parent is equal in the eyes of the court; neither parent feels relegated to a lessor parenting role than the other.
  • The time each parent has with the children can be approximately equal; however, it is important to understand that joint physical custody does not automatically mean that both parents have exactly equal time with the children. Instead, both parents have "significant time" with the children which can can be arranged when the child custody schedule is created.
  • The parents are likely to share the expenses of raising the child in a more equitable manner.  Child support may be significantly reduced or eliminated since both parents might have the children almost the same amount of time.
  • Neither parent is referred to as visitor. Visitation does not exist with joint physical custody relationships.


What are the disadvantages of joint physical custody?

While these are the good points, joint physical custody does have drawbacks, as well.


  • Because there will be two homes, the children will need to adapt to living in one new place at a minimum.
  • Frequent custody exchanges can create a stressful and disruptive situation for the child.
  • If parents do not live very close to one another, then a child's ability to commit to extra-curricular activities such as sports or social clubs can be difficult.
  • Joint physical custody is also much easier in low-conflict relationships where the parents can co-parent. In high-conflict relationships, having to communicate often as required by joint custody, can lead to more arguments and more conflict.

Why would a family court order joint physical custody?

A family court will award custody based on the "best interest of child" standard. If the court finds that joint physical custody is in the best interest of the child, they may award joint physical custody if both parents are seeking custody.

How can divorced parents better make joint physical custody work?

Living close together can make life a lot easier when parents have joint physical custody. When parents live far apart, the situation is much tougher because the parents will either spend a lot more time traveling for custody exchanges, or they will need a custody schedule that allows for children to spend a lot of time with one parent, then a lot of time with the other. These big breaks away from the parent without the children can lead parents to feel depressed and children to forget habits and routines that they had while they were with the other parent.


How do divorced parents create a joint physical custody plan?

It is important for both parents to communicate openly about concerns and needs that each has, and to seek to find the plan that works best for both. The following are important factors to consider when developing a joint physical custody schedule:


  • The distance between you and your ex spouse
  • The distance to your child's school
  • Work schedule of both you and your ex
  • Other obligations
  • How will you handle when unexpected matters come up?
  • Who will get the kids of school is cancelled
  • Activities or clubs the children participate in regularly
  • Vacations

Parents can choose from a variety of shared custody schedules from one week on to one week off, to having children half the week during the week. See parenting time calendars for a more detailed illustration of variety of schedules.  Note that it may be advantageous to give a schedule a trial period before modifying the divorce decree.  This will help each parent identify issues before committing it to writing.

Although the above schedules are 50/50 arrangements a custody schedule can be 20/80, a 30/70, 40/60 or any ratio tailored to your particular situation.  It is a balance between what works best for both you, your ex, and your children.

Are there differences between states in how joint physical custody is arranged?

Yes. Certain states simply require both parents to be "significantly" involved in rearing the children. Other states define joint physical custody by the amount of time both parents spend with the children and establish a minimum amount both must spend.




 Resources: - Explanation of the shared physical custody pros & cons
Explains that joint physical custody is also referred to as "Shared Custody," "Shared Parenting," or "Dual Residence." This article lists the pros and cons of joint physical custody.
Robert Emery, Ph.D. on joint physical custody
Robert Emery, Ph.D. is an authority on divorced parenting relationships, and he describes his thoughts about joint physical custody in this in depth article, covering why he think is it both the best and worst type of custody relationship.

joint, physical, custody, shared, parents, child, decisions, legal, time, visitation

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