How does joint custody work?

You and your spouse can either have "joint legal custody" or "joint physical custody" - or both. With joint legal custody, parents share the right and responsibility to make important decisions about their children's health, education and welfare. These might include such things as where the children will go to school or whether they should have braces on their teeth. It also means that parents share information about the children with each other. (No matter who has custody, both parents have equal rights to information about their children from schools, doctors and others.) Joint physical custody means that the children spend living time with each parent on a regular basis. It does not mean that the children must spend equal amounts of time with each parent, although they may do so. The children might spend school days with one parent and weekends and some vacations with the other. Or, the children might stay with their mother for a week, month or longer, then move in with their father for a time. If the parents live near each other, the children may go back and forth between them without an exact schedule. Usually, parents who want joint physical custody work out a routine on their own without a mediators help. However, a judge could give both parents joint legal custody but not joint physical custody. In this case, both parents would have equal responsibility for important decisions affecting the children's lives but the children would live mostly with one parent. The parent who did not get physical custody usually would have regular contact with the children. The idea is to make a plan that is best for your children. Remember, children can have a hard time adjusting to changes in their lives. Studies of parents and children after divorce show that children cope better with the break-up if both parents play active roles in the children's lives. Because you probably will be under a great deal of stress, figuring out the best arrangement and making it work will take a lot of patience. One family counseling service suggests that parents treat custody like a business arrangement; they should talk to each other during certain hours only and stick to the subject of the children. Note: Custody arrangements can have important effects on your right to stay in the family home and on whether you receive or make child support payments. Custody decisions also can affect your right to claim certain tax benefits, such as head-of-household status, dependency exemptions of the child care credit, as well as public-assistance benefits. It is a good idea to check these with your lawyer before reaching a final agreement.