Shared custody is when the parents of a child do not live together but are both responsible for and have the right to physically care for and make decisions pertaining to their child. Also referred to as joint custody, this arrangement allows both biological parents to be involved in deciding where the child lives and how he or she is raised. Shared custody is often the result of a decision during divorce proceedings, though it may also occur when the parents have never been married or even lived together.
When the custody of a child is in question, the case is taken to family court, which is a court specifically for making decisions regarding family law. The judge there evaluates whether shared custody is in the best interest of the child. Some factors that the judge considers to help with this decision include each parent's fitness to care for the child, any history of drug abuse, and sometimes the preference of the child.
There are two main ways that shared custody works. Parents can have joint legal custody, where each one has the right to have input into major decisions in the child's life, such as medical care, education, and day care. They can also share physical custody, in which case the child lives with both parents for certain periods of time. In some cases, parents may only share legal custody while one parent retains sole physical custody, but in others they may each have both.
If shared physical custody is granted, a schedule needs to be determined for the times the child will live with each parent. The parents may work together to determine a schedule that meets their needs and those of the child, but if they cannot agree, the court may intervene and set up a schedule. Sometimes one parent may be the primary caretaker, with the child's time in the other parent's home limited. In other cases, the time is split more evenly between the parents.
There are pros and cons to shared custody. On the positive side, it allows the child to see both parents and have them involved in his or her life. Parents benefit as neither one has to take on the sole responsibility for raising the child. The situation can be difficult though, as the child has to move from one home to the other, which can be very disruptive. Also, if the parents cannot agree or have negative feelings toward each other, the child may get caught in the middle.