It is a hard fact of life that sometimes a union of two people no longer works out. Maybe despite their best efforts and/or the efforts of a couple’s counselor, they cannot seem to get along anymore. Maybe they just grew in two different directions and no longer seem to have the time for each other or feel that they have nothing more in common, and the best thing for both parties is to separate. It is a difficult decision and transition for anyone at any stage of life, but when children are involved, the decisions become more difficult and complex.
Most parents can agree that they want what’s best for their children. One common question when children are involved in a separation or divorce is, ‘What kind of custody arrangement is best?’ While only the parents and a trusted legal adviser within the state of residency can answer that, this article will provide some facts to help make an informed decision.
This question can best be viewed in two ways: 1) from a legal standpoint of what can and might happen in a court of law and 2) from a psychological standpoint.
Let’s talk legally about joint custody. You may have heard the terms joint and shared custody used interchangeably. Think of joint custody as the overarching umbrella under which shared custody sits. Joint custody is the opposite of sole custody in that both parents are involved in the child’s life physically (time spent with the child) and legally (decisions made regarding the child). These two facets can be further split so that one parent can have more of an involvement in the legal aspects of raising a child, or one can have more of a physical presence in the child’s life than the other. Joint custody aims to give both parents control and responsibility (legal custody) over a child and more of a presence in the life of that child, too (physical custody).
Shared custody arrangements aim to split the physical living arrangement and legal decision-making of joint custody equally, 50/50. Courts will want the child to spend at least 100-ish nights per year in the home of each parent. This custody situation works best when parents are cooperative and cordial around each other and can communicate well with one another. Both parents will need to be able to work together to make decisions concerning all kinds of issues ranging from living schedules to medical/health and education to religion and body piercings.
When couples cannot agree on how to split custody, the court will do its best to determine what kind of custody arrangement is in the best interest of the child. All things being equal, shared custody is usually presumed to be in the child’s best interest. Whether shared (think 50/50) or joint custody (think any other fractional mix), here are the factors a court of law will take into consideration when determining legal and physical custody arrangements:
- History or evidence of any kind of abuse involving anyone within the household
- Special needs of any child or parent
- Financial history, responsibility, and stability of the parent
- Parental work and travel schedule
- Proximity of the parents to one another
- Proximity to child’s school of record
- Moral character of parent
- History of the relationship between parent and child
- History of willingness to parent the child
- Which parent seems to be the most involved with caregiving
Unfortunately, there’s just no getting around the fact that divorce is usually hard on the children, no matter how low-conflict it may be. However, the good news is, children are able to adapt quicker and better after a divorce or separation when the parents can co-parent cordially, equally, and fairly. This points to the case for joint custody over sole custody. Compared to sole custody, research shows that joint custody helps to:
- Preserve or increase a parent’s commitment to the child
- Preserve or increase the parent/child bond with both parents
- Increase the overall financial contributions to the child in spite of the amount of child support awarded
- Reduce a child’s feelings of being “caught in the middle” or being made to play favorites
- Decrease parental conflict over time
- Increase child satisfaction
- Increase the amount of time a child is attended to
In one large study, children in a joint custody arrangement had significantly better scores on an index measuring academic, behavioral, and emotional functioning than did their sole-custody counterparts. And a bigger analysis of over 30 studies between the years 1982 and 1999 revealed that children in joint custody arrangements continued to score better on tests measuring emotional adjustment, self-esteem, and behavioral adjustment than did those in sole custody arrangements.
Is Joint Custody the Best Fit?
Research is a helpful baseline, but every situation is different. This chart can help you see how joint custody would fit with your unique circumstances and your child’s needs.
Should I consider joint custody?
|Yes if…||No if…|
|Both parents are responsible caregivers.||There is a history of abuse of any kind with any parent or anyone they choose to live with.|
|Both parents desire to be in a relationship with the child, and the child desires to have a relationship with both parents.||The parents live too far apart to schedule regular, frequent visits.|
|Parents are able to get along and work together to make decisions for the child.||The parents are in very high-conflict with one another.|
|There are no special medical needs to consider.||The child or parent has special medical needs that may prevent traveling or caretaking.|
To answer the question, “Is joint custody best for my child,” it seems that as long as there is no abuse of any kind (verbal, mental/emotional, physical, sexual) going on in the home with either parent or anyone else living in that home, and as long as the parental conflict is not high and volatile, some form of joint custody is best for the child. From shared (50/50) custody to sole custody and everything in between (e.g., sole custody with high visitation), there is no one-size-fits-all arrangement. Speak to a child custody lawyer you can trust to help you navigate this decision.