What is the Difference Between Sole and Joint Custody?

Child custody is one big piece of the larger divorce puzzle, and because of the emotions involved, it is often the most challenging. Divorced parents naturally find it difficult to transition from seeing their child every day to sharing parenting time with an ex-spouse. This discussion explains the difference between sole and joint custody to help parents better understand the nuances of common custodial arrangements. Child custody matters are best handled by an experienced and compassionate divorce lawyer.

Child custody refers to the physical and legal custody of a minor child. Legal custody is the right to make major life decisions about and for the child. Physical custody is parent’s right to have the child live with them. Parents who do not live together must arrive at a custody arrangement tailored around the child’s best interests. The custody plan explains when the child lives with each parent and who makes the decisions about their care. There are a few different custody arrangements based on the child’s age, needs, and relationship to each parent.

Sole Legal Custody

The parent with sole legal custody is entirely responsible for making final decisions about their child’s health and well-being. Those decisions involve education, medical care, religion, travel, and housing. The parent with sole legal custody can absolutely consider the other parent’s input, but they are not legally obligated to honor their wishes. It is important to note that sole legal custody does not absolve the other parent of financial support or deny them visitation. It only keeps them from having any say in major childrearing matters.

Sole legal custody is much less common than joint custody, especially in New Jersey. Psychologists and parenting experts agree that children benefit from spending time with both parents fairly equally rather than living with one parent and visiting the other. In most cases, the courts would agree. However, that arrangement works only if both parents are willingly invested in the process. Unfortunately, in some families, underlying concerns about a parent’s fitness make it unsafe for the child to be in their company unsupervised. In this case, sole custody is essential to protect the children.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Sole Legal Custody?

As mentioned above, sole legal custody is necessary when one parent is unsafe, unfit, or unavailable. It also reduces conflict between parents who cannot agree on the fundamental choices related to the children. Going back and forth between parents with drastically different parenting styles can be frustrating. Sole legal custody creates consistency. However, there are some definite drawbacks to sole legal custody. For one, the children see only one parent making decisions on their behalf. They might assume the other parent is not as important or simply does not care to be more involved in their life, which may not be true.

Sole legal custody is an enormous responsibility. Without the ability to defer to another parent, the pressure to make the right decisions can be overwhelming. An ex-spouse may feel displaced from their role as a co-parent, and this custodial arrangement can add to a single parent’s stress level.

Joint Legal Custody

More often than not, the courts award parents joint custody, giving both parents input in major decisions about the children. For joint custody to be effective and efficient, parents must communicate and work together to do what is best for the children. Joint custody is a legally binding arrangement. A parent who shares legal custody with their ex-spouse can be found in contempt of court if they make major decisions about a child’s schooling, health care, or religion without consulting their co-parent.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Joint Legal Custody?

Children benefit when both parents work together to nurture their health and well-being. Children who see their parents cooperate and work through differences are more likely to have good self-esteem and go on to model those healthy collaborative skills. Joint legal custody is ideal for parents open to compromise to do what is best for their children. It cannot work if parents are unable to work past their differences and make positive co-parenting a priority.

What about Physical Custody?

With sole physical custody, the child exclusively lives with and is supervised by one parent. Only if the court permits it can the other parent have limited visitation. This is common in situations in which safety concerns make extended time with the other parent impossible, such as with physical abuse or addiction issues. Although primary and sole physical custody are sometimes confused, they are not quite the same. A parent with primary custody has the child most of the time and makes most of the major decisions for their upbringing. When parents share custody, one parent is usually designated as the primary caregiver, but the children spend considerable time with both parents.

Shared or Joint Physical Custody

Parents who share custody generally have equal time with the children and have input in how to raise them. This is an ideal scenario for co-parents who are overall agreeable and open to working together to promote the best interests of the children. The exact details of the parenting schedule vary according to each family’s unique circumstances. Depending on what works best for everyone’s schedule, children can go back and forth between households every other day or every other week, for example. These details are noted in the parenting plan, which notes where children spend their holidays, summer breaks, and vacations. Although some parents do not see the need to put all this information in a parenting plan, doing so now reduces the chance of conflicts later.

What Factors Influence Custody Rulings?

The courts consider the entire family dynamic to determine what is best for the children. Factors that influence child custody matters include the following:

  • If both parents are capable of making sound decisions for the child
  • If a parent is seeking sole custody to alienate the other parent
  • If either parent has a mental, emotional, or physical issue that compromises their ability to parent effectively

A Closer Look at the Parenting Plan

The parenting plan, sometimes called the custody agreement, specifies the details for how co-parents are to work together to raise the children. If parents are divorcing, the parenting plan becomes a final custody order once the divorce is complete. Parents who never married utilize parenting plans as well. Parenting plans can be as basic or as detailed as the situation warrants. Ex-spouses who are especially acrimonious should put every detail in writing to prevent ugly disputes as time goes on. At the least, the parenting agreement should address child support, physical custody, and legal custody. Other common provisions found in New Jersey parenting plans include the following:

  • Communication. How and when the child stays in contact with the non-custodial parent.
  • Exchanges. How and when they occur, whether at the parents’ homes or in a public location.
  • Expenses. Who pays for the child’s education, childcare, health insurance, extracurricular activities, and other costs?
  • New relationships. Agreements about if and when a child meets and spends time with a parent’s new partner.
  • Third-party childcare. Who is permitted to care for the child when parents are unavailable: sitters, grandparents, neighbors, and other responsible adults?

What is the Difference Between Mediating and Litigating a Parenting Plan?

Parenting plans are created through mediation or litigation. Mediation is a negotiation process where everyone is involved in productive discussion until the major issues are resolved. Both parents and their respective lawyers sit down in a casual setting and agree on child custody and visitation terms that satisfy all parties involved and are best for the children.

In litigation, a family court judge makes the final determination about visitation, custody, and support. Litigation is necessary for couples that find it impossible to agree. Because a family court judge creates a parenting plan based on a limited snapshot they see of the family, it is likely one or both parents will be unsatisfied with the terms. With effective legal counsel, parents can peacefully and productively work out a parenting plan that meets everyone’s needs without having to go to court.

Morristown Child Custody Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Help Clients with Custody Concerns

The Morristown child custody lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. will advocate for you through every stage of the mediation and/or litigation. When you choose our team, you can feel confident knowing you will receive the personal attention your family law matter deserves. Our job is to advocate for the best solution for you and your children. Call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients throughout Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.