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The term “joint custody” is often misunderstood to mean a 50-50 split in parenting time. However, “custody” doesn’t mean physical custody when used in this way. Instead, it’s referring to your ability to make parenting decisions when it comes to your child. Joint custody means that you and the other parent have equal decision-making power and must work together to make choices about the major things in your child’s life, such as education and religion.

Joint custody is awarded in cases where the parents are able to maintain some sort of relationship with each other. In other words, they are on speaking terms and can work together and reach an agreement as issues come up. If the two parents can’t talk without fighting and can’t agree on anything, then a judge is not likely to award joint custody. It would not be in the child’s best interest. Joint custody can be awarded regardless of whether the parents were ever married.

As for physical custody, that can be agreed upon by the parents or ordered by the judge. Many parts of a custody case can be decided by the parents, if they agree and if they are acting in the child’s best interest. The best interest of the child is the judge’s focus in these cases, and the law requires him or her to make it the priority.

The parent who doesn’t have primary physical custody can end up with a range of visitation arrangements, depending on where each parent lives, schedules at school and work, preference of those involved, and again, the best interests of the child. Unless there is a form of abuse happening, the court will aim to create a situation in which the child can have a close relationship with each parent. So, you can end up with joint custody for decision making and visitation for spending time with your child.

The other piece of the puzzle is child support. Joint custody does not rule out child support. A common outcome is that both parents share decision-making ability (joint custody), one has physical custody and the other has a visitation schedule and may also pay child support to the parent who has physical custody. But as you can imagine, there are many different scenarios and ways this can play out.

Joint custody, while important, is not the whole picture. If you believe it’s in your child’s best interest to live with you and that you are entitled to child support, then go after these things. If the other parent disagrees, we suggest getting an experienced family law attorney to help you present your case to the judge. This is especially important if the other parent has an attorney fighting for what they want.
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Written by Michael Helfand