In some states, such as New York, the phrase, "joint custody" refers only to legal custody. If the court orders it in your divorce decree, you and your spouse will continue to make all important decisions together regarding your children, just as you did while married. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, refer to this arrangement as shared legal custody. In both cases, physical custody is addressed separately -- and the terms, "shared" and "joint" mean the same thing. Legal custody does not have any effect on daily dilemmas, such as if your child can watch television before starting his homework. The parent who has physical custody or visitation at the time makes such decisions.
When parents face custody issues in divorce, physical custody is usually first and foremost in their minds – as physical custody addresses where the children will live. If the children divide their time pretty much equally between your home and your spouse's home, this is referred to as shared custody or shared physical custody in many states; both Pennsylvania and Illinois use the term "shared." It may also be called joint physical custody. The flip side to this arrangement is when the kids live predominantly with just one parent. If this is you, you'd have primary physical custody in Pennsylvania, or sole physical custody in other states.
In some states, such as Virginia, the term, "joint custody" refers to both physical and legal custody. If you have joint custody, you and your spouse will each have the children roughly half the time -- and you'll work together to make important decisions. Virginia doesn't use the term "shared" at all.
Getting It Straight
If you don't know exactly what kind of custody to request from the court in your state, consult with a lawyer, or your online legal document service, to make sure you get it right. In states such as Colorado, you wouldn't even ask for custody at all – your choice is between parenting responsibility, which equates to physical custody, or decision-making responsibility, which relates to legal custody. One thing of which you can be reasonably sure, however, is that if you ask for "shared" or "joint" anything, you're requesting equal footing with your spouse.