In the past, most custody arrangements granted primary custody to mothers, giving only a few days of visitation to fathers. Recognizing the importance of promoting both parents' ongoing involvement with their children, however, many states now favor some form of shared custody. Shared custody arrangements can be ordered by a judge or agreed to by the parents, and they may be structured in a variety of ways.
Shared Legal Custody
Parents often share legal custody, even in the more traditional arrangement where the child lives primarily with one parent and has "parenting time" with the other parent. Many states, such as Pennsylvania and Tennessee, have a presumption in favor of shared legal custody. Shared legal custody grants equal decision-making authority to the parents of a child in such areas as the child's education and religion. When parents share legal custody, they may or may not also share physical custody.
Shared Physical Custody
When parents share physical custody, both parents are granted significant amounts of time with the child. Shared physical custody does not, however, necessarily mean that parents have exactly the same amount of time with the child. For example, one parent might have primary custody during the school year and the other might have primary custody during the summer months. There is no standard way to structure a shared physical custody agreement; courts encourage parents to work together and, if they can't, the judge will choose an arrangement that is best for the child.
Shared Custody Considerations
Judges are often reluctant to grant shared physical custody to parents who cannot work well together. However, the most significant consideration in all custody arrangements is the best interest of the child. Depending on the laws in a particular state, judges consider a variety of factors, such as the child's relationship with each parent, each parent's parenting competence and the quality of environment provided by each parent. In some states, shared custody -- legal, physical or both -- is mandated if both parents are equally competent and equally bonded with the child.
Shared Custody Benefits
Child custody evaluator Robert Galatzer-Levy points to several studies indicating that shared custody arrangements are better for both children and parents in his book "The Scientific Basis of Child Custody Decisions." Teachers and other third parties report that children in joint custody arrangements are better adjusted than children who only have visitation with their non-custodial parent. Parents also reported higher satisfaction with joint custody arrangements, and parents who were ordered to pay child support were more likely to do so when they shared custody of their children.