How to Make Joint Child Custody Work

When parents have joint physical custody of their children, the parents are not deemed to have a primary residence with only one parent. Instead of having one primary residence, they are considered to be domiciled in both of their parents' homes.

As joint physical custody of children has become more common, so have concerns about how to make a shared custody arrangement manageable:

  • How to maintain good communication,
  • How to maintain a cooperative, respectful relationship with the other parent, and
  • How to avoid stressing or burdening the children as they transition back and forth between households.

Developing a Joint Custody Schedule

When people hear the term "joint custody", many assume that the parents will have equal parenting time with their children. Depending upon the age of the children, the needs of the children, the distance between the parties' homes, and the parents' other obligations, that may occur. However, in many cases the best schedule will not be equal.

Factors that may affect the parenting schedule include:

  • The Children's Needs: Infants and sensitive preschoolers may benefit from the greater stability of having a primary home. If one parent lives away from the children's school, school-aged children may benefit from having a primary home that is close to their school, friends, and community activities.

  • The Parents' Obligations: Although other factors may come into play, the parents' work schedules are often a significant factor affecting parenting time schedules;

  • Distances Between Households: As distance increases, so does the difficulty of maintaining dual households without unduly burdening the children.

  • The Children's Wishes: Particularly as they get older, children and teenagers will develop feelings about the parenting schedule and how exchanges affect their lives.

There is no joint parenting schedule that will work for all parents or children, and the best schedules will often evolve over time. The ideal solution is not based on equality of time, but instead creates a child-centered plan that can be adjusted to best serve the needs of the children as they grow older.

For example, parents can transition from a schedule in which an infant has a primary household with frequent contact with the other parent, to a pre-school schedule that involves dual households, to a school schedule that may place the children in one household for weekdays when school is in session. Different schedules may be maintained for the school year and summer.

Parents who have a good working relationship may recognize that problems are arising with the parenting schedule, and may agree to try alternative schedules without locking themselves into a long-term arrangement or returning to court.

Making Joint Custody Work

With an agreement or court order for joint physical custody,

  • Respect: Even if you have strong negative feelings, show respect for the other parent when the child is present or may overhear you. Even when you disagree with one of their decisions, be willing to admit that the other parent is competent and on the whole makes decisions that are in the children's best interest.

  • Flexibility: It is important to remember that there is no perfect joint parenting schedule, and that a flexible arrangement will accommodate your own needs, the needs of the other parent and the changing needs of the children. You can try new arrangements when the existing schedule becomes problematic, and that flexibility can help sustain a good joint parenting arrangement.

  • Communication: You need to communicate effectively with your ex- and not use the children as messengers.

  • Create Joint Household Rules: Children benefit from consistency. Work with the other parent to create a consistent set of core rules that are enforced in both households.

  • Talk to the Children: Let the children know that they are able to share their feelings with you about their lives, including the parenting schedule, and listen to what they say. Even small children may have ideas about how exchanges may be improved, and older children and teens may benefit from being allowed to request changes to the parenting schedule.

  • Pick Your Battles: Disagreements are inevitable, but try to maintain your composure and avoid arguments whenever possible.

When more than one child is involved, it is more difficult to create a joint parenting time schedule. When differences in the children's age and interests are significant it may be appropriate for each parent to have occasional one-on-one time with each child, in addition to the regularly scheduled exchanges.

Benefiting from Joint Custody

No matter what led to the failure of the parents' relationship, that history does not need to enter into joint parenting.

When parents create effective joint parenting relationships, they maintain a level of partnership that provides their children with two safe, loving, stable households. They can discuss the children with the other parent, and try to come up with joint approaches or solutions to problems and concerns that may arise. Their children will come to understand that they have two homes, and two parents who respect each other and the children's needs, and who demonstrate a level of respect and cooperation that the children can carry over into their own future relationships..

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.