Joint Child Custody: How to Create Your Child Visitation Schedule

By Victoria McGrath

You have the power to negotiate a visitation schedule that works well for you. If you and your ex-partner agree to share joint child custody, you can generally create a child custody and visitation schedule with or without a court order. When you enter into the custody agreement, you are both bound by its terms. However, the agreement cannot legally be enforced until the court approves it and issues a child custody order.

Joint Child Custody

The child visitation schedule that you create depends on the laws of your state, and whether you have joint legal or physical custody of the child. For joint legal custody, you each have an equal right to make decisions regarding your child's educational institution, religious instruction, health care and general welfare. For joint physical custody, you each share the responsibility to supervise your child and provide housing, clothing, food, transportation and basic necessities. A visitation schedule may detail the physical time that a parent cares for the child.

Shared Physical Custody

Joint physical custody is often referred to as shared physical custody. Physical custody can be shared 50/50 in which the child spends two weeks with one parent, then two weeks with the other parent. But it often varies, due to logistics and other considerations. If one parent has the child less than half the time, that parent usually has visitation rights which are specified in a visitation schedule.

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Special Needs of the Child

The visitation schedule depends on practical considerations, such as the child's daily routine, parents' work schedules, availability and distance between parents’ homes. The agreement also takes into consideration the emotional bonds with each parent, child’s primary caregiver, participation of siblings in visitation and complexities of the separation or divorce. The visitation schedule can include special needs that are unique to each child, such as medical needs, orthodontic appointments and extracurricular activities.

Child's Developmental Stage

Custody and visitation schedules may vary based on a child's developmental stage. The agreement may account for the child’s age, ability to separate from each parent and mental state. Parents can structure visitation around the child’s needs at this time and plan for future changes based on developmental milestones. For example, parents can decide that a toddler needs to sleep in her own bed each night at the primary caregiver's residence until she reaches a specific age, such as school age or 5 years old.

Standard Visitation Schedule

State courts, legal aid services and legal document providers often use court-approved form documents for visitation schedules. For example, the State of Oklahoma uses a standard visitation schedule that specifies week-end visitation, night visitation, holiday visitation and summer visitation. This standard visitation form works for parents with joint legal custody and joint physical custody, where one parent is the primary caregiver and the other parent has standard visitation rights including week-end, evening and summer visitation. It also works in a case in which one parent has sole physical custody and the other parent has visitation rights.

Mediation and Negotiations

If you do not agree on joint child custody or all the terms of the agreement, the judge can require you to participate in court-ordered mediation. A mediator works with both parents to negotiate the terms of the agreement. The mediator can help parents draft an agreement to be approved by the court. The judge approves custody arrangements that you agree on if they appear reasonable and in the best interest of the child.

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Laws Governing Child Custody in South Carolina


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Parents' Rights Under Joint Child Custody Laws

Parents can mutually work out the details of joint custody and present a written agreement to the court for approval. If you need to change the agreement later, you can seek a modification of the custody order issued by the court. The terms of joint child custody are not set in stone by state law, but all state laws require judges to consider the best interests of the child. A court will generally agree to joint child custody arrangements when parents are able to work together to make legal custody decisions and physical custody arrangements that benefit the child.

Child Custody Alternatives

When parents divorce, the court usually must issue an order dividing custody and crafting a visitation schedule that is in the best interests of the divorcing couple's children. While only courts can issue these orders, parents can create their own custody and visitation agreements, through mediation or by themselves, and ask for court approval. If parents cannot agree, the court creates a custody and visitation structure based on state guidelines and the facts of the case.

Will Sole Custody Affect Child Support?

Courts can order sole legal custody, sole physical custody, joint legal custody and joint physical custody. Sole custody directly affects the amount of child support paid by the non-custodial parent. The parent with sole physical custody is the custodial parent and the parent without physical custody is the non-custodial parent. The non-custodial parent typically pays child support to the custodial parent to cover the child's living expenses.

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