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Understanding 'joint custody'

There is no set definition of joint physical custody. Many people think that joint custody automatically means that each parent has an equal amount of time, but that is not necessarily the case. Joint custody can refer to a number of different custody arrangements under which the parents share custody of the children. A "50/50" schedule is simply one form of a joint custody schedule, under which each parent has the same number of overnights.

Many factors have contributed to the surge in popularity of 50/50 custody arrangements. One of the biggest factors is the increase in families where both parents work outside the home and an increase in "breadwinner moms." Working mothers are now the top earners in about forty percent of households with children. In situations where both parents are working, there is less reason to default to mom as the custodial parent.

Another big factor influencing joint physical custody arrangements is an explosion of psychological literature supporting the theory that custodial arrangements where children have roughly equal contact with both parents is better for children. While there has recently been a backlash against some of this research, the concept is something that continues to become more commonly accepted. Recent literature has indicated that 50/50 schedules work best in low-conflict divorce cases where the parents are able to communicate regularly and effectively.

At the same time, a growing social movement supporting father's rights has given an extra push to the popularity and acceptance of shared custody arrangements. Our society now recognizes that it is vitally important for children to have the involvement of both parents, and it is now socially acceptable for men to take on a variety of roles that were once only viewed as acceptable for women. Additionally, society's concept of "family" continues to evolve with the legalization of same sex marriage which makes traditional gender roles of "mom" and "dad" less important in the context of evaluating what custody arrangements are in a child's best interest.

Below are some factors to consider when evaluating whether a 50/50 custody arrangement may be an option in a particular case:

  • Do both parents work outside the home?
  • If both parents work outside the home, do they have roughly equivalent work hours?
  • If both parents work outside the home, do they both have some flexibility to take time off work to deal with doctor's appointments, school events, activities, illnesses, and family emergencies?
  • Does one parent's employment require regular overnight or extended travel?
  • Is it a low conflict or high conflict case?
  • Does a parent suffer from a substance abuse or mental health issue which currently impacts the parent's ability to provide care, or does a parent have a history of impaired care?
  • Is there any history of domestic violence between the parents?
  • Have there been any issues with a parent's care which rise to the level of child abuse or neglect?
  • Can the parents effectively communicate or are their tools that can be implemented successfully to assist the parents with communication?
  • Can transitions from one parent's house to the other parent's house occur with minimal disruption for the child and the child's schedule?
  • Are the children in school or are the children below school age?
  • Do any of the children have special needs?
  • Did one parent consistently do the majority of the caretaking during the marriage or relationship or did both parents contribute to caretaking responsibilities?

The assumption that it is the right of every parent in every case to have joint physical custody of their child is a dangerous one, and one that takes the primary focus off the needs of the children and diverts it to the needs of the parents. While joint physical custody schedules can be a great option in many cases, there is no cookie cutter custody arrangement that works best for all children.

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