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What is Joint Physical Custody?

One of the most common inquiries from parents that are going through a divorce involves the different types of custody, namely, what joint physical custody is. Admittedly, custody arrangements can be a confusing topic, particularly when you’re navigating through an already challenging and complicated life change. For the purposes of clarifying some of this confusion, let’s take a moment to go over the differences between joint legal and joint physical custody, as well as some of the many ways choosing a joint physical custody arrangement can help both you and your children.

What Does Joint Physical Custody Mean?

In simplest of terms, joint physical custody is an arrangement in which both parents share equal rights in terms of time and contact with their children. In other words, the children’s physical place of residence is shared between both parents. For instance, the children may reside with their mother for one full week, and their father the next full week, or they may split the week to provide both parents with relatively equal parenting time. It’s important to note that this arrangement typically only works when both parents live close to one another, otherwise it may simply be too stressful for the children.


Many couples confuse joint physical custody with joint legal custody. The main difference between the two is that legal custody governs who gets to make decisions for the children, such as healthcare and education, and who is allowed to move the children out of state. Parents who are given joint legal custody share these rights and unless there is a really good reason to state otherwise, joint legal custody is the default position for children and divorce. Joint physical custody is similar in that both parents share equal rights; however, physical custody governs only where the children will stay. It’s possible to share joint legal custody but not joint physical custody. In the end, it really depends on the situation and the family dynamics.

Benefits of Joint Physical Custody

I am in favor of joint physical custody arrangements, but only when both parents are able to work together and have their children’s best interest at heart. Unfortunately, sometimes parents battle for control of their child and use joint physical custody as a way to “get their fair share” of the kids or (and I quote) “to make sure they live a normal life at least half the time!” There are a lot of benefits to these types of arrangements, such as:

  • Stronger Relationships – When children feel equally at home in the residence of both their mother and their father, they are able to develop strong, healthy relationships with both parents.
  • Eliminates the Conflict of Loyalty – Children who only spend limited time with one parent often feel torn about where their loyalties lie. In joint physical custody arrangements, this conflict and tension is eliminated because parenting time is equal.
  • Easier Transition – When one parent moves out of the marital home, it can be a traumatic experience for the children. With a joint physical custody plan, even though both parents no longer reside under the same roof, their children often find the transition easier.
  • Shared Responsibility – Being a single parent is never easy. Joint physical custody arrangements make it easier on both parents because they each share equal responsibility when it comes to caring for and raising their children.
  • Better Cooperation – Parents often benefit from joint physical custody arrangements because they are forced to work together on a regular basis for the sake of their children. This allows for better cooperation and collaborative parenting. It also benefits the children, who get to witness their parents interacting with one another in a mature, conflict-free manner.

How Mediation Can Help

Developing an effective parenting plan through mediation can help both parties determine which type of custody arrangement will work best for them. Whenever possible, an arrangement that allows the children to spend as much time as possible with both parents is always the best scenario. Mediation can help both parties to work together and come up with a plan that works for everyone involved and suits the unique needs of their family. When child custody is determined through mediation, both parties are more comfortable with the outcome, which ultimately benefits the children in the long run.

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