Divorce Q&A: How Does Joint Custody Work?

New to navigating the world of divorce? We can help. This is how joint custody works, both for your time with your kids and child support.
By:
Chelsea Williams
December 1, 2021
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When you're getting divorced, you may have a lot of big questions about your parental rights, including, "How does joint custody work?"

I remember being confused about the different ways each state or judge may set up the custody of a child and what that would mean for my case. In the end, I couldn't have predicted how things would go, or how they would change over the years. But I wish I had done a bit more research about child custody before stepping into a courtroom.

In this article, I'll give you an overview of:

  • Important custody-related terminology you should know
  • How joint custody and child support determinations are connected
  • The potential for your custody arrangement to shift in specific moments and in the long run

Child Custody 101: Physical Custody vs. Legal Custody

How does joint custody work: court house facade

It can be quite jarring when you find out that the legal definitions of child custody vary from the idea you have before you file for divorce. There are even different types of custody, which might be surprising. 

Here are a few important terms you might hear from your attorney, a court mediator, or a judge:

  • Physical custody: The amount of time a child spends with each parent. This is frequently broken down into percentages or overnights per year.
  • Legal custody: The right to make choices for the child. Regardless of the physical custody arrangement, sometimes both parents have decision-making rights about things like medical treatment or education.
  • Custodial parent: The parent who has the child the majority of the time (51% of overnights in a year). You may need this designation for things like claiming a child on your taxes. If you have 50/50 custody, your parenting agreement will likely spell out which of you can claim to be the custodial parent each year (because you’re both technically custodial parents all the time). 
  • Sole: When something applies to only one parent. You might see it used in front of the terms for types of custody, e.g., "sole legal custody." 
  • Joint: When something is shared by both parents, as in "joint physical custody."

Most often, physical custody and legal custody overlap (both parents have both). However, sometimes a parent may only have legal custody — for example, if they work overseas and don't live with the child but are still involved in major decisions.

As with most facets of divorce, custody laws vary in the U.S., so the way your physical and legal custody play out can be radically different from how it was for a friend or family member who's gotten divorced in a different state. 

The final decision in a child custody case is usually based on a combination of each parent's ability to provide a reasonable standard of living and the best interests of the child (which can be subjective and are most often determined by a judge if the case goes beyond mediation).

Joint Custody Arrangements and Child Support

Now that you understand some of the legal jargon related to getting divorced with children, let's talk about how joint custody works in conjunction with another frequently confusing part of divorce with children: child support.

The amount of time a child lives with each parent usually impacts the amount of child support either will pay. 

One of the important legal forms you'll probably fill out during the divorce process is a child support guidelines worksheet, which will take into account each parent's income, assets, and percentage of time with the children.

Therefore, a custody agreement is often decided upon before child support is settled (although temporary child support can be enforced prior to a divorce being finalized in some situations).

To illustrate the relationship between the two factors, consider a hypothetical couple who's going through a divorce: Marissa and Miles. They share two children, both of whom are under 18. Marissa earns more income than Miles, but she works long hours and can't be with the children every weekday evening. Miles has a part-time job and is available to pick the kids up from school.

If their divorce results in a joint custody arrangement, Miles may have a higher percentage of time with the kids, whereas Marissa might be the one to pay child support to make up for the time she can't be with them (and for Miles's lower income). 

Think of it this way: The court will likely try to arrange your children's time and financial support so that it most closely matches the quality of their lives before the divorce.

Depending on the stipulations of your arrangement, parenting time may also impact financial responsibilities that fall outside the umbrella of child support, such as health care. One way this could break down is for a non-custodial parent who spends little or no time with their child to provide health insurance, and the custodial parent (or the person who has the children at the time of a doctor's visit) to be responsible for copays.

While the cross-section between joint custody and child support can't account for every big moment (or every shared expense) you'll encounter while co-parenting, it establishes a starting point. If either parent's circumstances change dramatically, it's possible to go back to mediation or before a judge to adjust the agreement.

How Does Joint Custody Work in Real Life?

Father hugging his kids

Normally, a joint custody agreement applies until a child turns 18, or until they graduate from high school. A court can't predict everything that could happen during that time.

Whether you mutually agree on a joint custody schedule in mediation or you're given a court order, there are likely to be changes to your schedule at some point. These could be one-time or ongoing, but it's best to be prepared and flexible.

Here are a few real-world examples of when a parenting plan may not pan out exactly as intended:

  • Your ex-spouse has a family emergency and needs you to pick up your daughter and keep her for an indefinite period of time. This sudden change could be inconvenient and you may not have any guarantee that they will return the favor, which could be frustrating. But it helps to look at it as bonus time with your child.
  • You're responsible for paying child support via an income deduction order. When you switch jobs, there's a delay in the payments and your co-parent gets upset. You could choose to notify them in advance of the potential for change, provide some cash temporarily, or simply wait it out. There's no right answer in this situation, so you should do what feels best.
  • Your parenting plan includes a right of first refusal clause, which means you and your ex-spouse are required to check with the other parent any time you plan to leave your son with a caregiver (to see if they'd rather take the time instead). However, you have an unexpected work event come up and you need to call a last-minute babysitter. You may not have time to wait for an answer from your ex.
  • In a worst-case scenario, your children's other parent is diagnosed with a terminal illness. You'll need to plan for a permanent change to the time sharing schedule, but for now, you'll probably have to be flexible and patient as you wait for the necessary legal process to take place.

Trying to count parenting time exactly and hold each party to every word of a legal agreement can be unnecessary and unrealistic. You can take some potential co-parenting frustration off your plate with shared calendar apps and the Onward App, but moments of inconvenience are likely to pop up occasionally, regardless.

If there happen to be huge disparities between what you agreed upon and what your co-parent is doing, it may be time to consult a divorce attorney for legal advice about remedying the problem.

Your Child's Best Interests Come First

You may not always agree with the outcome of your divorce or child custody case, but you can control the way you respond to it. 

The court will have made a choice they believe is best for your children, and sometimes having that neutral party make a decision can relieve some of the pressure on you. Both you and your kids will become resilient throughout this process and you'll fall into a routine no matter how joint custody works out for your family.

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.