If you’re going through a divorce and have children, keep reading. This article explores sole custody vs joint custody so you know which is best for you.
About 50% of all American children will witness their parents’ divorce. Parents may not ever want to consider what would happen in the event of a split, but dealing with child custody is often the most frustrating and difficult part of negotiating a divorce.
The main issue is deciding between sole custody vs. joint custody. How can parents possibly choose who gets to spend more time with the children?
There isn’t often a clear “right” answer, but we’re here to provide some guidance. Read on to learn all about sole custody, joint custody, and what you should consider when you’re making your decision.
What Is Sole Custody?
With sole custody, one parent has exclusive legal and physical custody of a child, making them responsible for the child’s care and important decisions about them. Sole custody isn’t common as it isn’t often in the best interest of the child, but in some rare cases, it’s the only good option.
It’s important to note that sole custody does not have to mean that the non-custodial parent has no contact with the child. In most cases, the court will establish visitation or parenting time arrangements that allow the non-custodial parent to maintain a relationship with the child while ensuring the child’s safety.
What Is Joint Custody?
So what about joint custody (or split custody)? There tend to be more variables involved, but both parents share the responsibility for making important decisions about their child’s upbringing and welfare. They also share physical custody, but the degree to which custody is shared varies.
In other words, joint custody doesn’t have to be 50/50. Some joint custody arrangements involve an equal 50/50 split, while others may involve one parent having more substantial physical custody than the other. This is “primary physical custody.”
In most cases, joint custody is best for the child. As long as both parents are willing and able to be doting and responsible caregivers, it’s best for the child to have time with them.
Things to Consider
So now that you know the basics of both sole and joint custody, how can you decide which one makes more sense for you and your family? Furthermore, if you decide to split custody, how can you decide how to split it?
We’ve come up with several considerations that can help you make this challenging decision.
Child’s Best Interests
The primary consideration in any custody decision is the best interests of the child. Courts prioritize the child’s physical, emotional, and psychological health above all else. Parents may not be happy with the decision, but the child’s well-being is paramount.
However, there are many factors that go into this, so it’s not as simple as asking a child what works for them.
Joint custody requires a lot of cooperation and communication between parents. If you and the other parent can work together, joint custody can be a great option. However, if there is a history of conflict (which is common for people going through divorce), it may not be in the child’s best interests right away.
Both parents need to commit to overcoming their personal issues in order to create stability for the child.
Stability and Routine
Speaking of stability, children need stability and routine. Will joint custody disrupt their daily life, or can both parents provide a stable environment?
This could be a factor if one parent moves away or even to a different school district, though there are workarounds for that. In those cases, one parent may have to have more custody than the other.
The distance between parents’ homes can impact the feasibility of joint custody. If parents live far apart, it may be challenging for the child to transition between homes regularly.
It’s okay for a parent to move, but they should consider how that may affect their custody agreement. In many cases, the child will stay with the parent who isn’t moving unless there are extenuating circumstances.
The child’s age and developmental stage should be taken into account when a judge is determining custody. Younger children may require more stability and predictability, while older children may better adapt to shared custody arrangements.
Younger children who are breastfeeding may have to stay with the mother. However, if only one parent has the ability to provide daycare for a child who’s too young for school, that may also be a factor.
When it comes to older children, their opinions are taken into account more.
The judge will assess each parent’s level of involvement in the child’s life. Courts often favor shared custody when both parents are actively involved and committed to the child’s upbringing. Both parents should be making decisions and spending (almost) equal time with the child.
The goal is to disrupt the child’s life as little as possible (during a time that will certainly be disruptive). If one parent is already borderline absent, the judge will keep that in mind.
Each Parent’s Abilities
Evaluate each parent’s ability to provide a safe, nurturing, and supportive environment for the child. This includes considering each parent’s work schedule, living conditions, and support systems.
In many cases, a parent who works longer hours and doesn’t have enough space for a child will get split custody, but they’ll have less physical custody than the other parent. It’s uncommon for a parent to have no custody at all for these reasons.
As long as parents are both willing and able to take care of the child, split custody is possible.
Depending on the child’s age and maturity, their preferences may be considered by the court. However, the child’s wishes are typically balanced with other factors.
Young children may not have their wishes taken into account as much as older children (as young children aren’t as aware of their needs). Judges are also careful to look for any signs that the child has been persuaded by one of their parents. It’s not uncommon for parents to bribe small children with toys or vacations in order to get custody (and this is unfair to the child).
History of Abuse or Neglect
Any history of abuse or neglect by either parent can be a significant factor in custody decisions. The child’s safety should always be the top priority.
If the parent has ever abused the child or the other parent, it may mean that the other parent gets sole custody. It’s possible that the parent could get visitation or earn their right to joint custody back, but it’s not guaranteed.
Living in a house with abuse, even if the child isn’t suffering directly from that abuse, will raise the child’s ACE score (which can impact their development). The judge wants to avoid any chance of the child getting in harm’s way.
On a similar note, if one parent doesn’t seem like a safe person (due to a history of criminal activity or drug use, for example), that may also indicate that sole custody is the best option until that parent is able to provide a safe and secure environment for the child.
Seek Professional Support
Seek mediation or legal advice if you and the other parent are unable to reach an agreement. A mediator or attorney can help facilitate discussions and guide you through the legal process.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help in this situation. In most cases, having a lawyer on your side is best for the child. The lawyer understands that this is an emotionally turbulent discussion and they’re able to approach it from a level-headed perspective.
If the other parent has an attorney, it’s imperative that you have one as well. You want to make the “playing field” as even as possible if you want a fair outcome for both parents as well as the child.
Be open to flexibility in custody arrangements. What works best for the child may evolve over time as their needs change, so it’s helpful to revisit the custody agreement periodically.
At the same time, what works for each parent may also change over time.
Perhaps a parent who starts with no custody is able to change and create a safe and healthy environment for the child, in which case split custody could be possible. On the other hand, one parent may need to move away for work, in which case they may lose custody if the child is better off staying put.
As long as you’re putting the needs of the child first, you should be fine.
Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody: Which Is Right for Your Child?
When it comes to sole custody vs. joint custody, there isn’t often a clear right answer. What works for some families won’t work for others. It’s your responsibility to work with an attorney to make the right decision for your child.
Are you in need of an experienced divorce or custody lawyer who can help you navigate your divorce in Maryland? Blattner Family Law Group can help. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.