Shared, or joint custody, gives divorced parents a chance to be the best parent they can. Shared custody means that both parents have physical and legal custody of the child and share the child, if not equally, then substantially and frequently.
Significantly, shared custody is 180 degrees removed from the traditional custody regime where Mom had custody, which means possession, and Dad visited one night a week and weekends and paid support. This routine was called sole custody because one parent (usually the Mother) has custody. The other parent (usually the Father) enjoys visitation rights.
Today courts are abandoning this regime unless the child is in danger in one parent’s household. While it does make for little disruption in the child’s life, it also makes for very limited connection of one of the parents to their children, and the children can often become weapons in this routine.
Today, very often one parent (usually the Mother) has physical custody, but both share legal custody. This means that both Mother and Father jointly make “decisions about a child’s schooling, healthcare, and religious upbringing.” Many states encourage joint legal custody of a child. The most common type of custody available, shared legal custody, allows both parents to make decisions about child upbringing. On the downside, conflicts between the parents can generate tensions for the child.
“Most states hold that the court’s authority to award joint custody does not depend on whether it has been requested by the parties.” In fact, courts award joint custody when parents do not request it if the court believes it is in the best interest of the child.
In shared or joint custody, parents agree to, or a court orders, both parents to share decision-making responsibilities. Typically, the parents synchronize their schedules to make the arrangement work, or a court will order them to. Joint custody normally means joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or both.
Joint custody assures children continuing contact and involvement with both parents, and alleviates some of the burdens of parenting for each parent. On the downside, children must be shuttled around, parental non-cooperation can have seriously devastating effects on children, and maintaining two homes for the children can be expensive.