Custody of the children is perhaps the most critical decision for all parties to make when a couple divorces. In each case, determining factors such as lifestyle, employment, and each parent's ability to care for a child and best maintain the positive aspects of the environment the child has become accustomed to are taken into consideration before deciding which parent should be given custody. When it is clear that both parents are equally suitable caregivers, one common solution is to award both parents with joint custody.
Joint custody refers to any arrangement that gives both parents legal responsibility in decision making that affects the child. This does not necessarily mean that a child spends equal time between two homes. Joint custody may be used to identify two different situations: joint legal custody and joint physical custody. Several factors differentiate these two terms.
Joint physical custody involves a court-ordered schedule of caretaking that allows a child to spend a predetermined amount of time in each home, meaning a minor child will have two primary residences. When joint physical custody is granted, there is no "visitation" schedule because the children live between the two homes and all responsibilities of childcare are shared. This designation is only suitable for families in which the divorcing parents are on amicable terms and will be able to manage the arrangement without conflict.
Joint legal custody is a court order that ensures each parent has an equal right in making decisions regarding routine medical issues, education, and any other area that affects the welfare of the child. This type of joint custody generally allows one parent to be the "custodial" parent. That means the children live with one parent, but the other parent is granted visitation privileges and must be consulted on all legal decisions regarding the child. This is the ideal situation for families who struggle with a bit more conflict because it allows both parents to retain legal control, but one parent is able to take the lead on smaller, everyday decisions that affect the child without subjecting the child to unnecessary conflict.
Joint custody is decided upon in a family court, usually when a couple is going through a divorce. The goal is to create the best possible environment for the child while maintaining the legal rights of each parent. Though it is almost always tricky to determine which situation will suit each child, family court judges look at all aspects of a child's life and each parent's ability to provide the most stable environment possible.