Many people may use the terms shared custody and joint custody interchangeably, as if they are the same thing. However, although the two terms are very similar, there are important differences that can affect the custody agreement between the parents. Shared custody has a greater focus on sharing time with the children, whereas joint custody involves equal rights in decision making.

What Does Joint Custody Mean?

Joint custody allows the parents great control over the custody agreement. Generally speaking, it’s common for one parent to have physical custody of the child while the other parent has some sort of visitation rights, but legal custody (the decision-making responsibilities) may be awarded separately.

In cases of joint legal custody, both parents have an equal say in the responsibilities and decisions regarding the children’s upbringing, and both parents are highly involved in the children’s lives. Because the parents share in all the decision-making responsibilities, they must meet frequently to make their decisions together for the benefit of the children.

A good relationship between the parents is crucial to this decision-making process. Usually the parents have a great degree of control over the custody agreement, but it is important to understand that in this arrangement neither parent can unilaterally change important aspects of the children’s lives. For example, one parent cannot simply change the children’s school enrollment without consulting the other.

Typically the parents will work out a custody schedule based on work responsibilities, housing arrangements, and the children’s needs. Many parents agree for the children to split weeks between each parent’s home, although other arrangements may work better depending on the family’s circumstances.

Because joint custody arrangements require the parents to work together to make the best decisions for the children, and are less focused on the amount of time spent with each parent, joint custody may be more appropriate in cases where both parents live and work in the same area, or when the children are teenagers.

What Does Shared Custody Mean?

Shared custody is a specific type of joint custody that allows the child to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents. (In some areas, it may be called “joint physical custody.”) Shared custody generally means that each parent has physical custody of the children 50 percent of the time, such that the child’s time and interaction is equally divided between the parents.  The child has a legal home in both parents’ homes. Depending on your state, the term “visitation” may not be used in this custody arrangement.

This custody arrangement may provide equal rights to make important decisions for the children’s well-being — like education, healthcare, extracurricular activities, and religious affiliation. However, many times these decisions fall to one parent or the other. If the parents have agreed to share the decision making, they usually try to do so together and cooperate as a unit.

Because shared custody arrangements have a greater focus on the amount of time the children spend with each parent, shared custody may be more appropriate in certain cases where one parent might shoulder more responsibility.

For example, in cases where one parent works out of state or out of the country, shared custody might be more appropriate than joint custody. The child would get the same amount of time and care from each parent, but the custodial parent would bear the brunt of decision making during the child’s stay.

Shared custody may also be an appropriate choice in cases where one parent lacks stable income, or where one parent is chronically ill or injured. This type of custody arrangement may help solve certain financial issues related to child care for a parent who does not have stable income.

Which Custody Arrangement is Best?

It really depends on what works best for your family and the circumstances of the case. Generally, custody arrangements work best when the parents are able to come to an agreement together on their own without going to court, rather than having the court tell them what to do. If the parents cannot reach an agreement, the court may order mediation to help.

When it comes to joint custody vs. shared custody, both can be advantageous. Both custody arrangements offer children a security, stable home environments, and the care and nurturing of both of their parents. It is up to the parents to determine which arrangement works best for everyone’s schedule, lifestyle, and future plans and prospects.

Do I Need to Talk to a Lawyer Regarding Joint or Shared Custody Issues?

Custody arrangements may start out simple, but can get increasingly complicated, especially when trying to negotiate the family’s multi-layered work, school, and home schedules. When trying to determine what works best for your family, you can greatly benefit from the advice of an experienced child custody or family law attorney.

The right lawyer will help you talk through your situation and can guide you through the court system and the legal processes required to get your child custody plan ironed out. While family law issues can be difficult and emotionally charged, it really helps to have an experienced legal professional by your side throughout the whole process.