Joint Child Custody: Do the Advantages Outweigh the Disadvantages?

Is it always better for both parents to have custody of the children after a divorce?

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School

An important part of divorce is determining who gets what. Couples seeking divorce often hire lawyers because they can't come to an agreement of how to split their possessions or divide custody. This article provides an overview of custody arrangements and the pros and cons of joint custody. If you have questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Understanding Custody

Custody is usually one of the most contested parts of divorce. Some parents are set on "winning" a custody battle. But a judge will base any custody decision on a child's best interests – not a parent's wishes.

Physical Custody

"Physical custody" refers to where a child lives. A parent with physical custody spends the majority of the time with the child. A judge can order parents to share physical custody, called, "joint physical custody". In a joint physical custody arrangement parents will both spend substantial, but not necessarily equal, time with their kids. For example, under a joint custody arrangement one parent may have the kids 4 nights per week, while the other parent has the kids 3 nights each week.

Sometimes a child isn't safe in one parent's care. In these cases, a judge will award one parent sole physical custody and the other parent will receive regular visitation.

Legal Custody

"Legal custody" is a parent's right to make major decisions on the child's behalf. A parent with legal custody can decide where a child should go to school, what religion the child should follow, and whether a child should receive certain medical treatments. In many cases, parents will share legal custody unless it wouldn't be in the child's best interests.

Other times, a judge will award one parent sole legal custody. This means only one parent can decide how the child should be raised and where the child should attend school. Yet both parents have a right to a child's medical or school records, regardless of whether that parent has physical or legal custody.

Do Courts Prefer Joint Custody Arrangements?

Many parents wonder, "is shared custody good for the child?" Most judges favor joint custody arrangements, because they allow both parents to be a part of the child's life and upbringing.

However, under certain circumstances a joint custody arrangement wouldn't serve a child's best interests. For example, a judge probably won't award joint physical custody to parents who relocate hundreds of miles apart and who can't get along. Also, a judge is unlikely to give joint legal custody to a parent with a history of domestic violence. Your family's unique circumstance will determine whether joint custody is appropriate in your case.

What Are the Pros of Joint Custody?

One of the major benefits of joint custody is that a child gets to grow up with the influence of both parents. Parents with joint legal custody make mutual decisions for the child's life and have a major role in the child's upbringing.

For some divorced couples, a child gives the parents common ground. Joint custody arrangements can help parents learn to co-parent and reduce friction in their relationship. Also, a joint custody relationship takes the burden off of one parent. With joint custody, both parents have less stress and responsibility. Raising a child and making important decisions alone is hard work—joint custody splits up the responsibility.

What Are the Cons of Joint Child Custody?

Some parents question, "is joint custody good for the child?" One of the biggest disadvantages of joint custody is how stressful it is for children to constantly move from one parent's house to the other. Some children have a hard time adjusting to the back and forth of joint custody. It can be especially hard on small children who prefer stability.

Joint child custody doesn't work for every divorced couple. For some couples, joint custody creates even more issues for parents to fight over. Unfortunately, sometimes with joint child custody, a child's needs may go unnoticed. Joint custody means joint responsibility and parents who work together can deal with the pros and cons of a 50/50 custody arrangement.

Creating a Parenting Plan

Despite the disadvantages of joint custody, many parents want the benefits of a joint custody arrangement. Theoretically, having both parents involved is very beneficial for a child. But if the parents aren't able to work together in a cooperative and friendly manner, joint child custody may be harmful to a child in the long run.

If you're seeking joint custody in your case, you'll need to submit a parenting plan to the court. Parents can submit a joint parenting plan or each parent can submit his or her own plan. Your parenting plan should spell out how much time you'll spend with the child, which parent is responsible for transportation costs, and how you and your ex will make decisions regarding the child. Shared custody is good for the child and a well-drafted parenting plan can help parents minimize conflict and arguments. A judge can incorporate a parenting plan into a final custody order.

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