Solving Complex Family Law Issues with Creative Strategies

What’s the Difference Between Joint Custody and Shared Custody?

Divorce is a turbulent and confusing time for any couple, but especially for spouses who share children. There are many decisions to make, and some of them will be out of the parents’ hands and in the hands of a judge — a distressing thought for any parent, but the reality unless both sides can come to a fair agreement on every detail of custody. Before considering all aspects of child custody in a California divorce, it’s essential to understand the difference between joint custody and shared custody. Many people assume these are two different names for the same thing and several states use the terms interchangeably. However, in California, joint and shared custody are two different aspects addressing child custody.

What is Joint Custody?

Every child custody matter involves both physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where and with whom a child lives and the many small daily decisions that naturally come with living with a child, while legal custody refers to the right to make significantly important decisions for a child such as their medical and educational decisions. Joint custody refers to a legal custody arrangement where both parents must agree on important decisions.

When parents have joint custody over a child they share the responsibility for making choices for their child. Joint custody means both parents must be open to communication and compromise in order to reach an agreement on serious matters such as:

  • Medical and health decisions
  • Education and school decisions
  • Religious decisions
  • Important extracurricular decisions such as sports, clubs, and field trips
  • Travel and vacation decisions

Unfortunately, when parents have a contested divorce, it tells the judge that they aren’t able to compromise and reach reasonable agreements. In this case, a judge is more likely to either choose one parent for legal, decision-making custody or in less common instances, they may split points of legal custody; for instance, one parent may have education decision-making rights, while the other has medical decision rights. In either case, the other parent still has the right to remain informed of all decisions made on behalf of the child or children.

When a judge agrees to joint custody, it’s often in response to divorce agreements both parents were able to negotiate and sign civilly, often with the help of a mediator. This indicates that parents are able to compromise and come to agreements in a way that works well with joint custody and the shared decision-making that comes with it.

What is Shared Custody?

Shared child custody focuses on the physical custody of the child and addresses where the child lives as well as shared parenting time. In shared custody, the divorce agreement or court order divides the parenting time each spouse enjoys with the child as close to 50/50 as possible. Both residences become the legal homes of the child. Parents can have shared custody for the physical custody of children with or without joint decision-making custody depending on the unique circumstances of their case.

In cases where parents agree to a different arrangement for their own reasons, or when a judge makes a decision based on the circumstances of a custody case, one parent may have primary custody with the child living with them most of the time, while the other parent has visitation rights with a parenting schedule that gives them specific times to have the child with them, such as every other weekend plus one weeknight with alternating holidays and vacations.

Shared custody and joint custody address separate aspects of how divorced parents raise their children, but the two conditions of child custody often overlap.