Joint Physical Custody Pros & Cons

Single mom hugging her tween daughter
Understand the pros and cons of joint physical custody before you decide. Photo © Oliver Rossi/Getty Images

Joint physical custody is a decent option when neither parent wants to give up living with the kids. But it's not a form of child custody that works for every family or every child, and it warrants careful consideration. Before you decide what type of physical custody is best for your family, consider the pros and cons of joint physical custody.

What is Joint Physical Custody?

Before we explore the pros and cons, you need to understand the legal definition of joint physical custody.

Also called "shared custody," "shared parenting," or "dual residence custody" this physical custody arrangement involves having the children live with one parent for part of the week (or part of the year), and live with the other parent during the remaining time. The division of time spent at each location is approximately equal or "50/50."

However, you need to remember that physical custody and legal custody are two different things in the eyes of the courts. Legal custody refers to decision-making power. A parent who has sole legal custody has the responsibility to make all the big decisions, such as where the kids will go to school, what religion they will be introduced to, and major medical decisions. Technically, it's possible for one parent to have legal custody even while they share physical custody, or vice versa. However, for parents who share joint physical custody, it's generally more common for them to also share joint legal custody, as well.

It's important to know the difference because they may be listed separately when child custody agreements are issued by the court.

Pros of Joint Physical Custody

  • The children have the experience of living with both parents on a regular basis.
  • Both parents are established as equals and enjoy approximately the same amount of parenting time with the children.
  • The children may also have the opportunity to make new friends during the time spent with the parent who moves to a new location.
  • Neither parent is deemed a "visitor" in the children's lives.
  • The children learn to be responsible for their belongings.

Cons of Joint Physical Custody

  • The children have to adjust to living in at least one new location.
  • Packing up and switching homes every other week, or mid-week, can be extremely stressful for a child.
  • This type of child custody is not ideal for every family.
  • Especially early on, there can be a lot of running back to the other house to pick up forgotten items.
  • At times, the responsibility that is placed on the children to maintain their own belongings can become excessive.

Tips for Deciding Whether Joint Physical Custody is Best for Your Family

Especially if you go through the court system, you'll have lots of people telling you the know what's best for your kids. That's why it's so important to think through what you already know about your children. Chances are, you know them better than anyone else. Making a decision that's in their best interests means considering what their needs are and putting those priorities above your own wants. It's not about convenience; it's about which custody arrangement will help your kids thrive, given their personalities, challenges, desires, and relationships.

If sharing joint physical custody is best for them, then you'll be able to work out all of the details around living in two homes. But if you're in a situation where your kids get anxious every time they travel back and forth, it may be better to choose one home as the primary residence while still sharing parenting time 50/50.