Joint Custody Arrangements That Work

By Beverly Bird

Successful joint custody arrangements depend more on the parents than the law. When a court orders joint custody and forces it on parents, it can be a disaster if they don't get along. Most courts won't order joint custody for this reason. However, when parents request joint custody, judges will often approve the plan. When parents are dedicated to making joint custody work for both themselves and their children, it can be beneficial for everyone involved. This is especially true when parents factor practical considerations into their parenting plan.

Balanced Time

When parents divide time with their children on a daily plan, it’s easy for one parent to end up with all the weekend time -- e.g., Friday through Sunday -- while the other has only school nights -- Monday through Thursday. This can turn the weekend parent into the "fun parent" while the school night parent becomes the "nagger." One might begin resenting never having leisure time with the children while the other misses out on constructive parenting time -- helping with homework and the day-to-day details of his children’s “normal” lives. If parents agree to a schedule of Sunday through Tuesday with one parent and Wednesday through Saturday with the other, it gives their children a weekend day with each of them. Or some parents split three days each week and alternate the seventh weekday.

Creating Two Homes

Joint physical custody arrangements work best when parents live relatively close to each other. When they each live in their children’s school district, it cuts down on driving time and can streamline daily life, especially when they're exchanging the children frequently. When parents decide that their children will spend one week with one parent and the next with the other, and if the other parent lives some distance away, the children will lose contact with their friends at each location for a week at a time, not to mention long commutes to school. In joint physical custody arrangements, both homes should also be “fully stocked” with the children's personal possessions, especially when children spend a week at a time at each. This doesn’t mean they can’t tote some things back and forth, but each place should feel like home to them with clothes, toys and a comfortable bedroom.

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Consistent Schedules

Whether a parenting plan involves changing custody every few days or every other week, establishing a routine and sticking to it makes things easier on everyone involved. Parents will know when they’re going to be “off” so they can plan their own social lives or work schedules around those times, and they can more fully dedicate their time to their children when they're with them. Children often feel more comfortable with a predictable pattern. However, circumstances will inevitably crop up to disrupt the routine, especially as children get older and begin making plans of their own. When they create a parenting plan, parents should address provisions for how they're going to handle these times. They should agree ahead of time how they'll deal with it when one parent misses time because life interfered. This also avoids forcing children to change or forgo their own plans so they can accommodate a parenting schedule.

Making Decisions

Parents who share joint physical custody usually share joint legal custody as well. This means they both have the right to make major decisions for the children. When they disagree on a major issue, this can result in a deadlock. Parents might consider implementing a tiebreaker system for these occasions. For example, they might give a trusted third party, such as a grandparent, the tiebreaker vote.

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Ideas for Sharing Custody


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Do Both Parents Need to Live in the Same State to Have Joint Custody?

The term “joint custody” doesn’t lend itself well to an exact legal definition. Few states specify the number of overnights a child must spend with each of her parents before the custody arrangement qualifies as “joint.” Further complicating the issue is the fact that states recognize two different kinds of custody: physical and legal. Joint custody usually means that parents share both physical and legal custody. However, parents might share legal custody but not physical custody of their child, or vice versa.

Things to Remember for a Custody Agreement

The best child custody arrangements come about when separating parents can agree to the terms. The alternative is to have a court decide -- and the court does not know your child or your personal routines and needs as well as you do. Families also usually find it easier to adhere to terms they’ve devised themselves, as opposed to terms forced on them by a court.

Shared vs. Residential Custody

In most states, two kinds of custody apply to all separating families: legal and physical. Legal custody refers only to major decision-making, and physical custody refers to the parent with whom a child lives. A parent with sole physical custody is sometimes referred to as the residential or custodial parent; this is the parent with residential custody. When a child lives a relatively equal amount of time in each parent’s home, this is referred to as shared custody, also often called joint custody.

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