Divorce is heart-wrenching for the adults involved, but even more so for the children. Ideally, both parents will still want to be a regular part of their children’s lives. The court system accounts for this through joint custody arrangements.
The Difference between Joint Custody and Visitation Rights
Unless the court system has deemed one parent unfit, chances are both parents will have legally defined roles in their children’s upbringing. In a sole-custody arrangement, one parent is named as the primary caregiver, known to the court as the custodial parent. The child lives with this parent the majority of the time.
Custodial parents can legally make decisions about a child’s residence, schooling and medical care.
The other parent is known as the non-custodial parent. Non-custodial parents do not give up all rights to their children. Instead, they are awarded visitation rights. Sometimes determined through mediation between the two divorce attorneys, visitation rights may also be legally outlined by a judge.
Noncustodial parents are assumed to be responsible for the children’s welfare during visits, but ultimately the court recognizes the custodial parent’s right to make major decisions where the children are concerned.
Although granting one parent sole custody was once a very normal procedure, courts are beginning to recognize the value of making sure both parents have continued influence on their children’s lives. These days, judges and family law attorneys are more likely to recommend a true joint custody arrangement.
Specific Types of Joint Custody
There are two major types of joint custody: joint legal custody and joint physical custody. Joint legal custody is not necessarily affected by the child’s residence. Parents may live on opposite ends of the country or even in different countries, but still share decision making responsibilities.
Joint physical custody, on the other hand, takes place when children reside with each parent for a specific portion of time. Joint custody arrangements of this type can take on a variety of forms. However, the children’s time is generally divided by weekends and holidays or specific portions of the year.
Many parents will allow children to live at one residence during the week and another on weekends and holidays. This is the preferred option for a number of families because it allows the children to attend the same school throughout the year, adding much-needed stability to their lives.
For other families, an equal time allotment makes more sense. Children may live with one parent for half of the year and the other parent for the other half, change residence every three months, or even from month-to-month. Some parents choose to minimize the disruption in their children’s lives altogether by allowing the children to remain in the family home while the parents are the ones who regularly change residence.
Finding a Balance
Parents rarely make these decisions unassisted. Divorce attorneys and mediators who have experience with joint custody arrangements can make specific recommendations. In the end, however, each family’s situation is different.
One important piece of advice most psychologists will share, however, is that the decision must be made by the adults involved. Asking children where they would prefer to live may seem empowering, but in fact it burdens them with too much responsibility. Whether the decision involves sharing joint custody or allotting visitation rights, any negotiation should take place between parents, attorneys, mediators and judges only.