What is Joint Physical Custody?

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  • Written By: M. Lupica
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2019
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Joint physical custody is a child custody arrangement between two unmarried parents of a child. This shared custody arrangement gives both parents, as implied by “joint,” the right to have the child live with them, as is implied by “physical.” This is an entirely different set of rights and responsibilities that come with joint legal custody. Even if the parents have joint physical custody of the child, the court may still decree a rigid custody schedule if it is in the best interests of the child.

Joint physical custody grants several rights pertaining to the child in both parents. First and foremost, it refers to the day-to-day decisions in regard to the child. Typically this means decisions such as where the child lives, after school and weekend activities, as well as deciding what they eat. Physical custody is differentiated from “legal” custody in that legal custody implies general decision making with regard to the child’s health, education, and general welfare. In fact, very often, parents will have joint legal custody, but one parent will have sole physical custody.


The arrangement the parents have — the amicability of the parents, the age of the child, the closeness of the parents’ respective relationships to the child, and the ability for each parent to individually provide for the child — are all circumstances that the court will take into consideration before granting sole or joint physical custody. The court will consider all these factors in light of the “best interest of the child” standard, which is the standard typically used with regard to children in family law across jurisdictions. The big distinction between sole and joint physical custody is the proportion of time the child spends with each parent. While joint physical custody does not imply an equal split, it is generally much more even than if one parent has sole or primary physical custody in theory and in practice.

Joint physical custody sounds perfect in the abstract, given that it implies that the parents work together splitting up the day-to-day duties of raising their child. However, in real life, this does not typically go so smoothly given the fact that very often, there is tension between the parents and other things that they do not agree on with regard to the upbringing of the child. In the event that they cannot work together amicably, it is often in the best interest of the child, as well as everyone else involved, that one parent be given sole physical custody to reduce the potential for infighting.



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