A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Joint Physical Custody

About Brette Sember, JD | Divorce.com

By Brette Sember, JD Updated Mar 11, 2024


content-icon Table of Contents
arrow down up

Joint physical custody, also called shared custody, is the most common plan for how parents share time with children after a divorce or separation. Most states prefer this arrangement because it maintains the child’s relationship with both parents.

Read on to learn more.

Key Takeaways

  • Joint physical custody means both parents have access to and time with their child
  • Legal custody refers to which parent makes decisions
  • There are a variety of schedules parents can use in a parenting plan
  • There are pros and cons to joint custody

What is Joint Physical Custody?

Joint physical custody, also known as shared custody, is a type of child custody arrangement where both parents share the physical and residential care of their child or children after divorce or separation.

This type of arrangement allows the child to spend significant amounts of time with both parents, ensuring that they have ongoing contact with both parents. The specific details of how time is divided can vary widely, depending on the agreement between the parents, the child's needs, and sometimes the court's decision.

Learn about divorce online with Divorce.com

Joint Physical Custody vs Joint Legal Custody

Physical custody refers to how the parents spend time with the child. If parents have joint physical custody, they both spend time with the child.

Legal custody refers to the right to make important decisions about the child’s health, education, and religion. Joint legal custody means that both parents must make those decisions together, while sole legal custody gives that authority to just one parent.

How Joint Physical Custody Works

Joint physical custody requires the parents to share time with their child. The parents create a custody agreement, or a court orders a custody plan that details exactly how the child’s time will be split between the parents.

The parents follow the schedule and transfer the child back and forth between their homes. Some parents choose birdnesting, where the child lives in the marital home and the parents take turns spending time there with the child.

The goal of joint physical custody is for the family to follow a regular schedule that ensures the child has time with both parents regularly.

In some situations, joint physical custody means the parents share the child’s time equally. In other situations, the child has a home base with one parent (the residential parent) and spends some time with the other parent (non-residential parent).

How Do You Get Joint Physical Custody?

Joint physical custody is usually the result of a divorce or separation, but it is also possible when two people who are not partners choose to have a child together. Joint physical custody can be created by a court order, by an agreement reached in mediation, or by a parenting plan that the parents agree on themselves.

Visitation in Joint Physical Custody

It is common to discuss “visitation” in a physical custody plan. However, that term has become outdated. Parents do not visit their children.

They live with them, spend time with them, interact with them, and love them. Visitation implies a superficial presence, and most courts want to ensure that children have secure connections to both parents.

There are various ways that parents can share time with their child. When one parent is the residential parent, some people refer to the time the non-residential parent has as “visitation.”

Joint Physical Custody Visitation Schedules

Parents can create co-parenting schedules in infinite ways, and if they create their own plan, they can be as creative and flexible as they wish.

As long as the plan is in the best interest of the child, it will be approved by the court. Some parents choose bird-nesting or nesting.

When a court creates a parenting plan, the judge does not know your family and is apt to apply one of the common schedules. These include:

  • 2-2-3: Parent A has the child Monday and Tuesday. Parent B has the child Wednesday and Thursday. The parents then alternate the Friday-Saturday-Sunday block.
  • 3-4-4-3: Parent A has three days, then Parent B has four days, Parent A has four days and then Parent B has three days and it continues on like this.
  • Alternating weeks (7-7): Parent A has the first week of the month, and Parent B has the second week of the month. They continue alternating.
  • Alternating two weeks (14-14): Parent A has the child for the first two weeks of the month, and Parent B has the second two weeks, and they continue to alternate.
  • One night a week and every other weekend: In this situation, one parent is the residential parent, and the child spends one night a week and every other weekend with the non-residential parent.

Schedules also typically include details on how parents will share holidays, school breaks, and special occasions, such as:

  • New Year’s Day
  • President’s Day
  • Spring break
  • Easter
  • Passover
  • Summer break
  • Mother’s Day
  • Memorial Day
  • Father’s Day
  • July 4
  • Labor Day
  • Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day
  • Halloween
  • Veteran’s Day
  • Thanksgiving
  • Hanukkah
  • Christmas Eve
  • Christmas Day
  • Winter break
  • The child’s birthday

Some parents alternate holidays and breaks, and others assign specific holidays and breaks to each parent. It is common for each parent to have a week or two of vacation time to use with the child in the summer.

Factors to Consider When Creating a Schedule

The overarching factor that is applied to parenting plans is what is in the best interest of the child. That is what matters to the court when evaluating a plan.

There are a variety of factors that are evaluated when making a best interests determination, which include:

  • The age and mental and physical health of the child, including any special needs
  • The child’s adjustment to their homes, school, and community
  • The child’s relationship and attachment to each parent
  • The way the parents have been sharing time with their child
  • The mental and physical health of the parents
  • Whether domestic violence has occurred in the home
  • History of abuse or neglect
  • The child’s relationships with siblings, half-siblings, and other family
  • The child’s preference, which carries more weight for older children
  • Each parent’s willingness to support the child’s relationship with the other parent
  • The child’s and parents’ schedules
  • The geographical distance between the parents
  • Each parent’s living situation
  • Any other factors a judge deems relevant
Learn about divorce online with Divorce.com

Court Criteria for Joint Physical Custody Orders

Most states and judges have a preference for joint physical custody.

It is widely accepted that a child needs contact with both parents. A court will order joint physical custody if both parents are important in the child’s life and can provide safe environments.

It is rare for a court to order sole physical custody. This usually only occurs if:

  • The child has never had any contact with the other parent
  • The other parent is incarcerated
  • The other parent has a history of substance abuse that makes them a safety risk
  • There is a history of abuse or neglect by that parent
  • The child’s safety is at risk if they spend time with that parent
  • An older teenager insists they will not spend time with the other parent and has good reasons

A court may conduct a custody evaluation in which a professional, such as a child psychologist, meets the parents and child and offers an opinion on what is in the child’s best interest.

Joint Physical Custody: Pros and Cons

When considering what is best for your family, joint physical custody has benefits and drawbacks.


  • The positive impact on the child’s mental health and well-being by having two involved parents
  • Studies show children who are co-parented perform better academically
  • Having two parents available to assist with transportation, activities, school, and the child’s needs
  • Being able to help your child feel they are still part of a family
  • Demonstrate how to maintain healthy, positive relationships to your child


  • You will have regular, ongoing contact with the other parent until your child becomes an adult
  • You will spend only half of your time with your child and may not see them for every holiday
  • You will have to negotiate and work with the other parent regularly
  • In some states, the more time the non-residential parent has, the less child support they are entitled to


Is Joint Custody 50/50?

Joint physical custody can be a 50/50 arrangement, but it doesn’t have to be. Joint physical custody refers to any situation where both parents spend time with the child.

Does Joint Custody Mean No Child Support?

Child support is based on income. While the amount of time a parent spends with a child can impact child support, it does not mean there will be no child support, even if the parents split time 50/50. Usually, the parent with the higher income pays child support to the lower-earning parent.

Final Thoughts

Joint physical custody allows both parents to play an important role in the child’s life and ensure that they continue to parent together even if they are not together as partners. Joint physical custody is often in the best interests of the child and is the most common type of physical custody order.

Was this page helpful?

check full green icon Thanks for your feedback! close icon


content-icon Table of Contents
arrow down up