Joint custody is a legal term that refers to a separated or divorced couples’ responsibilities when it comes to raising their child or children. This may involve sharing parental duties, spending equal amounts of time with their child, and making important decisions (i.e., parental rights) regarding how to rear their children. 

In general, there are two types of shared custody arrangements, which are:

  • Joint Legal Custody: Joint legal custody is the right to make important decisions about a child and includes issues, such as education, religious affiliation, and medical or health-related choices.
  • Joint Physical Custody: Joint physical custody relates to the amount of time that each parent spends with the child. For example, the parents can decide to split their time with their child evenly, or alternate the time spent based on holidays and particular events. 

How Does Joint Custody Work?

If the parents cannot come to an agreement on how much time each of them will spend with their child individually, then a court will do so. Courts typically favor joint legal custody arrangements because it allows both parents to be involved in numerous aspects of their child’s life.

Even in cases where one parent has primary or sole physical custody, joint custody may still be awarded for making important decisions about the child’s upbringing together. 

When a court is considering whether or not to grant physical custody, several limitations might prohibit them from granting it, such as if:

  • The parents live far away from one another (e.g., on different coasts);
  • It would cause disruption to the child’s life or well-being;
  • The effect it might have on the child’s school schedule;
  • A child prefers one parent over the other and it would be in their best interest to stay with that parent;
  • The age and maturity of the child; or
  • Reasonable time with each parent is not an option (e.g., one parent works much longer hours than the other and would not be around enough to properly care for the child). 

What is a Joint Custody Agreement?

A joint custody agreement provides each parent an outline of their responsibilities and the amount of time they can spend with the child or children. It is common for the parents to enter into such an agreement voluntarily, which then gets submitted to the court. 

If the joint custody agreement receives the court’s approval, then the court will transform it into a formal court order, which has the effect of making it legally enforceable by law.

A joint custody agreement is usually written in strict and very detailed terms because it is likely that the parents will end up spending an unequal amount of time with the child. 

Unlike shared custody, where the parents may alternate weeks with the child, joint custody tends to involve a schedule that specifies days and certain time frames that a parent is permitted to spend with the child. 

As stated above, since the amount of custody time may be unevenly split between the parents, other concerns might also arise, such as child support payments and visitation rights.

What are Some Suggestions for Getting a Joint Custody Agreement?

In order to create and maintain a civil environment that promotes communication between the parties, these are a few important points to bear in mind:

  • Always remember to agree to things based on the child’s best interest. Not only is this the standard that the law and court applies, but it is also the best way to protect a child;
  • For a couple to be granted joint custody, they must specifically request it in court because it is not automatically guaranteed. In some instances, it may be offered as an alternative to sole custody.
  • If a couple cannot come to an agreement, they should seek the help of a family law mediator. In general, mediation can help save time and lower costs for the parties, as well as help them compromise. It is much more peaceful than attempting to iron out all of the details in court.
  • If one of the parties experiences a change in circumstances, such as getting a new job, being fired, moving, or remarrying, then the parties can request to have the joint custody agreement modified. 

Is Joint Custody Difficult?

Determining how to split joint physical and legal custody can be taxing on everyone involved in making the decision. Both parents will have to maintain separate homes for their child and will also have to make sure they can cooperate with one another. 

This can place a lot of stress on the child as well. Splitting time between parents could mean having different sets of friends, missing out on activities because they were at one parent’s house and not the other, and they are being forced to give up these things because they are literally in the middle of two parents who may no longer get along with each other. 

Therefore, it is in everyone’s best interest to cooperate. The more the child’s parents can work civilly together, the better it will be for navigating a joint custody environment.

Why Should I Use Joint Custody if it is So Difficult?

Joint custody provides both parents the opportunity to spend time with and influence their child. It is not uncommon for both parents to want to be able to live with their child despite being divorced or separated. Joint custody enables both parents to have this option. 

In cases where the child’s best interest may be jeopardized, such as due to child abuse or drug addition, the court may dismiss any notion of joint custody and simply award the fit parent with sole custody. 

When is Joint Legal Custody Granted?

Since joint legal custody gives each parent the right to make important decisions, and both have to agree with each other’s decisions, it is typically more feasible to grant legal custody to the parent who also has primary physical custody. 

If the following factors apply to the situation, however, the court may find that joint legal custody might be more appropriate:

  • The parents are willing and able to cooperate with one another;
  • If the child has special needs that require more attention, such as education or medical issues; or
  • The best interest of the child is to award split legal custody.

If joint legal custody is granted, each parent will have access to the child’s personal records, including school or medical records, and can therefore contribute equally to any major decisions. 

Daily decisions though, such as when to do homework, do not have to be agreed upon. This is because the parent who has current physical custody of the child will be responsible for these types of day-to-day decisions. 

What if We Would Like to Agree Upon Joint Custody?

In cases where both parents have agreed to enter into joint legal custody of their child, they may submit their agreement to the judge who will then finalize it with a court order (assuming that the court approves it). 

The judge will usually implement whatever form of joint custody that the parents have agreed on, but the judge still has the power to order a different custody arrangement If they think it is in the best interest of the child.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Help Me with My Joint Custody Case?

Legal cases regarding child custody can be a stressful and emotional event for everyone involved. Therefore, if you are seeking joint custody arrangements, then you should consider getting help from an experienced child custody lawyer.

A qualified child custody lawyer can help you to understand your rights as a parent, assist you in developing a legal plan of action, and can assist you in obtaining the type of custody arrangement that is best suited for you and your child. 

Additionally, a lawyer can also help with the process of modifying your joint custody agreement if your circumstances have changed.