The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Joint Custody


What is joint custody?

Joint custody is a type of custody arrangement ordered by a family court following a divorce or separation, where both parents have and equal responsibility to provide physical custody and legal custody to their children.  In a joint custody arrangement, neither parent is considered the non-custodial parent

Is it necessary to establish a 50/50 custody schedule in joint custody arrangements?

Often a custody schedule is established in a joint custody arrangement as the child(ren) typically reside with one parent more than the other; however, this does not indicate that the parent with less time with children has visitation.  Visitation and a visitation schedule only apply if on parent has sole custody.  Therefore, both parents are considered custodial parents although one parent may be have more time with the children due to logistics.

What is the point in joint custody if it doesn't require a 50/50 custody schedule?

It may appear, at first, that having joint custody with a custody schedule that gives one parent more time with the children than the other isn't really joint custody at all.  However, the biggest difference between joint custody and sole custody is the absence of a non-custodial parent.  If a divorce decree designates a custodial parent and non-custodial parent, the custodial parent is given much more power over raising the children.

Consider the issue of parental relocation.  If a custodial parent and non-custodial parent live close together, the non-custodial parent might not notice the problem with the custody arrangement.  But imagine a situation where the custodial parent gets remarried or gets a new job, and then for personal reasons, the custodial parent decides to move out-of-state.  The non-custodial parent would have a very difficult time stopping this from occurring.  If they had joint physical custody, it would be much easier to prevent parental relocation and the ensuing long-distance parenting relationship from occurring.

In joint custody, do parents have to get approval for all decisions from the other parent?

When discussing decisions, there are two types of decisions that can come into question:

  • Short-term decisions (whether to wear a coat outside, what time to go to bed, can a child watch TV)
  • Long-term decisions (what religion to follow, what medical care to receive, what schooling to attend)

The short-term decisions are ones that fall under the domain of physical custody.  Whoever is watching the children at the time can make these decisions.  As we discussed in the babysitter test, if a babysitter would be appropriate in making the decision, the decision probably falls under physical custody.

The long-term decisions above fall under legal custody.  Many custody arrangements actually have joint legal custody, even if they have sole physical custody.  When parents have joint legal custody, any decision that fails the babysitter test should be discussed with the other parent.  Another consideration to ask is, "Will the decision will affect the other parent?"  For example, if a parent wants the children to play soccer but the soccer games will affect the parenting time that the child has with the other parent, then it must be discussed with the other parent.

How does joint custody differ from shared custody?

There are various custody arrangements that the court may order when considering child custody cases. The type of custody arrangement ordered by the court will depend on the situation and ultimately the arrangement that is seen by the court as in the children's best interests is the one the court will prescribe.

Often the terms joint custody and shared custody or used synonymously, even by judges. Yet, despite their similarities, there are seemingly subtle, but important aspects that distinguish shared custody from joint custody.

Shared custody typically refers to both divorced parents being awarded physical custody of their children whereby the children are with each parent roughly 50 percent of the time. This may also be referred to, more specifically, as shared physical custody. Although a shared custody arrangement may have some flexibility, depending on the situation, such as permitting one parent to have the children more than the other, physical custody is divided roughly equally between each parent.

For a shared custody arrangement to be effective, it is important for both parents to reside near one another.  Ideally, they should be close to their children's school district, as well as the hub of children's daily activities (i.e. friends, sports, camps), so that the logistics of a long-distance parenting relationship do not become a problem.  As such, shared custody often reflects a situation whereby divorced parents are able to engage in a more collaborative relationship with one another.

Shared custody may or may not entail each parent having equal rights with regard to major decisions impacting their children.  Decisions involving health care, education, and religion fall under the domain of legal custody, and shared custody does not necessarily imply joint legal custody.  Shared custody is not always an option available in every jurisdiction and joint custody is more commonly used or ordered across jurisdictions.

Often, under joint custody, divorced parents do not have equal or even roughly equal custodial time but are to share and collaborate regarding significant decisions impacting the welfare of their children.  This means joint legal custody is, by definition, a component of joint custody. 

Furthermore, in joint custody arrangements, no parent is given more "power" than the other because neither parent is considered the non-custodial parent in a joint custody relationship. 1

What are the advantages of joint custody?

Each custody arrangement has advantages and disadvantages. Often there is not a perfect answer regarding child custody but rather an attempt to resolve the difficult dilemma of with whom a child will reside and how will significant decisions regarding the child be handled. Many feel joint custody has several benefits over sole custody arrangements. The following are some possible benefits of joint custody.

Better parent/child relationships
Joint custody helps foster a parent/child relationship with both the mother and the father. The children can benefit from seeing their parents communicate and interact in healthy way, despite the fact they are divorced. When divorced parents are able to maintain a collaborative, child-centered divorce relationship, they can co-parent in a joint custody arrangement. Co-parenting refers to two divorced parents working together in rearing their children compared to parallel parenting when divorced parents are parenting independently of each other to avoid conflict.

Reduced workload by one parent
In joint custody arrangements both parents shoulder the responsibility of caring for the child to prevent one parent feeling overloaded. Even though joint custody often does not entail that both parent have equal time with their children, it is helpful for parents to know that another parent is legally obligated to have their children and take the load regularly.

Better parental participation
Joint custody often allows both parents to participate and work together in making significant decisions that influence their children's development. If both parents are able to collaborate with each other, this can help reduce high-conflict parenting, as each parent may feel more apart of their children's lives.

Equal Parental status
Joint custody can help prevent either parent from feeling like they are being treated unfairly, which could help reduce post-divorce parenting conflict.

Reduced chance of parental relocation
Joint custody reduces the chances of one parent moving out-of-state.  Parental relocation is one of the most commonly litigated issues in family for divorced parents.  According to Vijai Sharma, Ph.D, approximately 17 percent to 25 percent of divorced parents will relocate within one year of being divorced.2  Many more will relocate years after the divorce, while the children are still minors.  This subjects children of divorce to stress and high-conflict parenting, as well as the difficulties that plague long-distance divorce parenting relationships.  Because neither parent in a joint custody relationship is considered the non-custodial parent, the chances of parental relocation happening are reduced.

More equal sharing of expenses
Successful joint custody arrangements tend to lead a more equitable sharing of child-rearing expenses over time. Many divorced parents move away from paying child support and evolve into a collaborative arrangement with how their children will be supported financially; however, child support is still a possibility in joint custody arrangements.  Child support is typically based of the parents' incomes and time that the children are in the care of each parent.  Because joint custody can still mean a different amount of custodial time for each parent, child support may be ordered in joint custody arrangements.

Joint custody can help parents be more accepting of child support obligations.  Child support is often a source of resentment, as one parent is being ordered to pay a certain amount without any say in how those funds are spent. Even though the logic of child support is that said parent would have been supporting their child when the couple was married, when parents are ordered to pay their ex spouse without being involved in how it is spent it often creates conflict. However, if both parents are actively involved in collaborating how funds are being distributed they often feel more empowered or involved which helps to decrease resentment and reduces instances of unpaid child support.

What are the disadvantages of joint custody?

Joint custody has drawbacks that must be considered, as well. The following are common drawbacks often observed in joint custody arrangements.

Increase number of custody exchanges
Children are required to bounce from one home to another much more often. Depending on how far apart the parents live, the increased frequency of custody exchanges can make it difficult for children to enjoy a stable social life that includes the kinds of activities that children enjoy in nuclear families or divorced families where one parent has physical custody. As such, joint custody works best when the parents live close to one another. When parents live far apart, the children may tend to feel as if they are "living out of a suitcase". This can foster resentment from the children.

Conflict from disagreements
Often a source of contention in joint custody arrangements is when parents live in different counties and have to decide which school their children will attend. It is very important to prepare and thoroughly think through a parenting plan so that issues like this can be addressed before the result in litigation or arbitration.

Joint custody requires a certain amount of collaboration between divorced parents. Sometimes conflict can result from issues related to the past marital problems, and they can harm the ability of parents to work together.  Parents should learn to place their children's needs before their own.  Joint custody does not work well for divorced parents who are unable to do that.

Difficult if inconsistency exists between households
Maintaining consistency in specific responsibilities between households can be a challenge in joint custody arrangements. Parents may have different parenting styles or one parent may be more thorough in attending to such responsibilities such as having the children complete their homework or chores. If parents are not able to communicate openly regarding expectations and concerns, a joint custody arrangement will be difficult.

What happens in joint custody if parents cannot agree on a custody schedule?

Often, parents that share joint custody are able to reach agreement on a custody schedule that fits the lifestyle, work, and activities for the family unit.  However, when parents are unable to reach agreement, mediation may be employed to have neutral third party help them negotiate. Ultimately, if mediation fails, a family court or a divorce arbitrator will need to assert a custody schedule.

When a third-party decides a child custody schedule, that schedule may vary widely from what parents may have chosen, had the worked out a compromise via mediation.  There are a variety of possible physical custody schedules that can be used, and the type of custody schedule chosen will depend on factors such as how close each parent lives to one another, what their work schedules are, what their home lives are like, and what the children's wishes are.

Common joint custody schedules use alternating weeks or split weeks whereby the children are with each parent an equal amount of time. Other examples of joint physical custody arrangements include: alternating weekends, months, six-month periods, years.

Some parents have a joint custody arrangement referred to as bird's nest custody, where children remain in the same house while both parents alternate living in the family house. This requires three residences: the family house, mom's house, and dad's house.

How can divorced parents make joint custody work?

Courts do attempt to adhere to the best interest of the child doctrine when making custody decisions for children of divorced or separated parents. Still, post-divorce parenting conflict can arise from any of the child custody arrangements.  After the court has awarded joint custody, it is important for parents to create a parenting plan and detail how they will handle co-parenting or parallel parenting their children.


1.  "Shared Custody vs Joint Custody." N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <>.

2.  Pros and Cons of relocation After Divorce, Mind Publications by Vijai Sharma, Ph.D., 2004  <>.


A very good description of joint legal custody!
Gregory S. Forman, P.C. explains joint legal custody in a very pragmatic way.
Joint Custody Wikipedia Article
Joint custody explained by the contributors on

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