What is Split Custody?

Alexis W.

Split custody, also referred to as joint custody or shared custody, is a legal term used to describe a situation in which multiple individuals have legal rights to a child. There are many different types of split custody. For example, the term could be used to refer to shared physical custody, the shared right to make medical decisions for a child or the shared right to make educational decisions for a child. There may also be many different arrangements each party can make when it comes to exactly how custody is shared.

When divorced parents both care for the child, it's considered split custody.
When divorced parents both care for the child, it's considered split custody.

A split custody arrangement most commonly occurs in divorce cases. If both parents want access to a child, custody of that child must be shared. The parents can share custody equally — called joint custody — in which case the child moves back and forth between houses, splitting his time. The parents can also make other arrangements, such as having one parent have primary custody and the other visitation rights to visit on a set schedule.

During a split custody, children split time between parents.
During a split custody, children split time between parents.

The two parties in a divorce can create their custody arrangement themselves, or the court can make the decision for them if they cannot agree. A custody arrangement or agreement in the event of a divorce is normally put in writing and approved by the court. The parents are each legally required to comply with the custody agreement. If one party fails to do so, he or she can face court penalties such as contempt of court, or even kidnapping, depending on the situation.

Grandparents may be entitled to split custody of a child.
Grandparents may be entitled to split custody of a child.

Custody arrangements do not always exist in the context of divorce. If the two parents of a child are not married, the court may also award split custody if both individuals want access to a child. In such situations, the father generally must prove his parental rights if the mother contests them, in order to be entitled to a joint custody arrangement.

While custody arrangements most commonly occur between parents, split custody can also exist in other circumstances. For example, in some cases, a grandparent or other relative may be entitled to split custody of a child. Likewise, if an individual who is not a child is somehow incapacitated and needs a guardian, such as a senile individual or a mentally impaired adult who requires care and a guardian, split custody arrangements can also exist in such situations if multiple parties express an interest in guardianship.

There are many different types of split custody.
There are many different types of split custody.

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Discussion Comments


When it comes to custody of children in divorce cases, every situation is different.

When my son and his wife divorced, he ended up having primary care of their son. She was not very responsible and this was the best thing she could have done for him.

She sees him on a regular basis, but the full time parenting and custody rights were given to our son.

They stick pretty close to the custody visitation schedule. I think this helps our grandson have some consistency with everything. Since my son has full time custody and she has a hard time holding down a job, he is not responsible for any child support.

His ex-wife is supposed to pay some, but most of the time she doesn't have a job, so he has had very little financial help.


@julies - Sadly, I think your situation ends up being the exception more than the norm. I think it would be great if split custody always worked that smoothly, but many times it doesn't.

When I divorced, I had primary care of our son, and my ex-husband had visitation rights. Even though the divorce custody papers specified when he could see our son, he very seldom did.

Not only did he miss out on developing a close relationship with his son, but it would have been nice for me to have a break once in awhile.

We didn't get nasty like a lot of people do when it comes to children and custody, but there was still damage done from spending very little time with his son when he had the opportunity to.

When I got divorced, my ex-husband and I had joint custody of our kids. Fortunately we got along well enough that this wasn't a problem.

We also lived fairly close to each other and our houses were in the same school district.

All of these factors made this much better than many divorce custody situations I have seen. If this can be done in a peaceful way, it ends up being so much better for the kids.

It is never easy for them to go back and forth from house to house no matter what, but if the parents get along reasonably well, it sure helps.


@whiteplane - I think the key thing is that split custody of children really only works when the divorce is reasonably amicable. It requires a lot more communication between the parents than does the occasional weekend or vacation with a non-custodial parent.

Both parents must be good about sharing things like birthday party invitations, notices from the teacher that might come home with the child, etc. If they are not able to communicate regularly, then too much responsibility is placed on the child(ren) to keep things in order. I used to know a little girl in Girl Scouts who was always missing events and showing up with the wrong supplies because she had left something at the wrong parent's house.

I think that it *can* work, and certainly there are many cases in which both parents are equally entitled to raise their children. But it is not easy.


Split custody can be one of the messiest parts of a divorce. In most situations, both parents love their children and want to remain an active part of their lives. Facilitating that when the parents live in different houses, even different countries is never easy.

Unfortunately, this can also be one of the bitterest areas of a divorce. Children often get caught up in the crossfire and used as ammunition against the scorned ex spouse. It is important for all parties involved to remember that the child, and the child's well being, is at the heart of the matter.


How does split custody child support work if both parent take a major responsibility for caring for the child? Does the father pay the mother or is there no support involved?

My parents got divorced when I was 9 and I spent most of the rest of my childhood with my mom. I saw my dad sometimes, but mostly my mom raised me. In that situation the child support only flowed one way, from my dad to my mom.


I used to date a girl who had a son and shared split custody with the boy's biological father. They had a perfect agreement where the child would be with the father one week and the mother the next. They would agree on where he would spend major holiday's and they were both flexible if the other person needed to change something. It seemed to go just about as smoothly as it could in a split child custody situation.

But I have to say, from my perspective, it was a little weird to date a girl who was a mom one week and not a mom the next. It was almost a Jekyll and Hyde kind of think. Not that she was crazy when her kid wasn't there, but she was different. I almost knew her as two people.

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