The Ultimate Guide to Joint Custody

Statistics show that about 40% of American children grow up in a single parent home or split their time between parents or family members. Despite the high number of children growing up in a non-traditional setting where both parents live in the home, parents still find it a struggle to effectively co-parent and share joint custody. Hopefully, this article will provide some suggestions to help you successfully co-parent and share joint custody.

What is joint custody?

First, parents need to understand what joint custody means. There are two types of custody: legal and physical. Legal custody concerns who will make the major decisions regarding a child. Decisions about school, private or public; religion, what church, if any, to attend; and health care, are all related to legal custody. Physical custody focuses on where the children spend their time and with which parent.

Parents can share legal custody and physical custody; both parents make legal decisions and share time. Some families like having a week on and a week off schedule. Others may prefer a 2-2-3 schedule. Sharing time works well if the parties live close to each other. Keeping children in the same school district is recommended; hopefully, transportation times can remain the same for the children. Parents can share legal custody, and the physical custody may be split 60%/40% or in whatever manner works for the parents. It is rare to have a judge order legal custody to just one parent. Also, only extreme negative facts result in a parent not having any physical custody. Judges will propose supervised visitation and
other controlled visits so that a child may have time with a parent.

Making joint custody work

Second, there are some key strategies or approaches that the parents need to share for joint custody, whether it is legal and/or physical, to be successful. Parents need to be able to communicate with each other clearly and concisely. Using a go-between or third party to send messages rarely works well. The third party may misinterpret or misstate the message.
Parents also need to be on the same page regarding schedules, rules, bedtimes, and chores. Children crave consistency. Both parents enforcing the same bedtime is important, as are the rules concerning homework, tv, electronics, and household chores. It is important that one parent avoid being the “fun one” with no rules-as enticing as that seems-it is not in the child’s interest.

Apps and tools for joint custody

A useful technological tool is for parents to use a co-parenting app. Parents can upload school schedules, extracurricular activities, practices, games, dentist appointments, and other events. Parents should embrace being able to attend soccer games and school plays-regardless of whose day it is for physical custody. Not only do apps store calendar information, but many apps can also save information so that it is secure and cannot be edited. Most apps have a function that logs expenses, banking information, medical information, clothing sizes, and social security numbers. Checking an app can be quicker and less stressful than texting or calling.

Some apps even have a tone reader function that can note if your message perhaps comes across too strong. Some basic apps are free, and more complicated versions have an annual fee around $50-$150. Popular co-parenting apps include: Our Family Wizard, WeParent, and Parentship. Many of these apps include a function where the calendar can be shared with others, including stepparents and grandparents.

Speaking of technology, parents need to share the same approach with electronics and phone use. If mom wants a facetime call at 7pm each night that the children are away, she should honor a similar request from the dad. Parents need to have a united front regarding the use of social media by their children. Both parents need to remember to compromise. One parent may feel more strongly about social media use while the other parent is more concerned the amount of time electronics are used.

Scheduling around the holidays

Parents also need to embrace sharing the holidays. There really is no magic to handling the holidays- except realizing that holidays will need to be shared. Parents often set out a schedule that has them rotating holidays, mom might have Easter, Thanksgiving in even years and Christmas in odd years. Parents can craft a schedule that honors family traditions-perhaps father’s extended family always celebrates Christmas on the weekend before Christmas. Mom’s extended family may always take a 2 week summer vacation at the beach. Hopefully, the parents can compromise and be willing to share time that will allow the children to enjoy their time with extended family. Parents need to share school holidays and early releases. Another good suggestion, parents need to share plans as much in advance as possible. An annual schedule for holidays is often included in a separation agreement.

Holidays may involve travel, and parents who share joint custody should agree on who pays for travel, travel limitations, and who holds a child’s passport. Parents should encourage travel and the value it brings. Accepting that a child may be taking a trip requires trust and compromise. A parent needs to be mindful that one day he or she might be the one who wants to travel.

Who is responsible for what?

Parents who share joint custody also need to be clear on who has the responsibility of childcare/school pick-ups; times for visitation pickups and drops offs; what needs to be packed and transferred, etc. Again, parents must be able to communicate. It is imperative that parents don’t communicate through their children, and they should avoid complaining about the other parent. (Complain to your friends or co-workers-but not the children.) For joint custody to work for parents, parents need to always focus on what is best for the children.

Child experts also recommend that each parent keep a calendar posted in a prominent place in each home for the children to quickly reference. Lastly, it is recommended that both parents keep clothes, toys, coats, shoes, personal care and other items at each house. Hopefully this can avoid a child having to pack and repack at every custody exchange. The goal is to have custody transfers run as seamlessly as possible.

Final thoughts

All of these provisions that the parents agree upon can be included in their separation agreement or co-parenting document. Another useful provision is to include how any differences in opinions can be resolved, perhaps by use of a mediator or arbitrator, noting that the parents will share the costs. It is impossible to create an agreement that will entertain every possible custody issue, but addressing the items discussed above is a great start.

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