Joint custody–sometimes referred to as shared custody or shared parenting–has two parts: joint legal custody and joint physical custody. A joint custody order can have one or both parts.

Joint legal custody refers to both parents sharing in major decisions affecting the child. The custody order may describe the issues on which the parents must share decisions. The most common issues are school, health care, and religious training (although both parents have a right to expose the child to their respective religious beliefs). Other issues on which the parents may make joint decisions include: extra-curricular activities, summer camp, age for dating or driving, and methods of discipline.

Many joint custody orders specify procedures parents should follow in the event they cannot agree on an issue. The most common procedure is for the parents to consult a mediator. Mediation will be discussed in chapter 15.

Joint physical custody refers to the time the child spends with each parent. The amount of time is flexible. The length of time could be relatively moderate, such as every other weekend with one parent; or the amount of time could be equally divided between the parents. Parents who opt for equal time-sharing have come up with many alternatives such as: alternate two-day periods; equal division of the week; alternate weeks; alternate months; and alternate six month periods.

If the child is attending school and spends a substantial amount of time with both parents, it usually is best for the child if the parents live relatively close to each other. Some parents, on an interim basis, have kept the child in a single home and the parents rotate staying in the home with the child.

In most states, joint custody is an option–just as sole custody is an option. Courts may order joint custody or sole custody according to what the judge thinks is in the best interest of the child. In some states (ten 1999), legislatures have declared a general preference for joint custody. That means the courts are supposed to order joint custody if one parent asks for it, unless there is a good reason for not ordering joint custody.

The most common reason for not ordering joint custody is the parents’ inability to cooperate. Courts are concerned that a child will be caught in the middle of a tug-of-war if joint custody is ordered for parents who do not cooperate with each other. Parents who do not cooperate also will have trouble with sole custody and visitation, but the frequency of conflicts may be somewhat less since they will need to confer less often on major decisions and the logistics of a joint physical custody arrangement.

Supporters of joint physical custody stress that it is in the best interest of the child to protect and improve the child’s relationship with both parents. They believe shared custody is the best way to make sure that the child does not "lose" a parent because of the divorce. Supporters of joint custody also argue that it is the natural right of parents to be joint custodians of their children, whether the parents are married or not.

Critics of joint custody fear that joint custody is often unworkable and worry about instability and potential conflict for the child. The success of joint physical custody may depend on the child. Some researchers have said that children who are relatively relaxed and laid back will do better with joint physical custody than children who are tense and become easily upset by changes in routine. Because joint physical custody usually requires keeping two homes for the child, joint physical custody often costs more than sole custody.

Children’s needs for each parent change as they grow. Parents probably should avoid locking in any parenting plan forever. Rather, they should plan to review the custody and visitation arrangement as the children grow and the children’s needs change.