By Divorce.com staff
Updated Feb 15, 2023
If your child is fortunate enough to have equal time and involvement with both of their parents, your custody agreement may be a little different than other families’ agreements. It’s usually clear which parent is the custodial parent and which parent is the non-custodial parent — but in a 50/50 custody agreement, the lines may be a little blurry.
Today, we’re here to help you understand who the custodial parent is in a 50/50 custody agreement and why the designation is important.
What Is a 50/50 Custody Agreement?
A 50/50 custody agreement is referred to as a joint custody agreement. Joint custody agreements can be divided any way that parents see fit, but they usually involve the child spending nearly equal amounts of time living with both parents. This type of agreement gives both parents the opportunity to effectively co-parent and support their child.
The split on joint custody can also be 55/45 or 60/40. The term “joint custody” only means that both parents are able to spend a substantial amount of time with their child. If a child spends 70% or more of their time with one parent, the parent who spends the most time with the child would have primary custody.
Joint custody is usually the preferred outcome of a divorce. The court wants to see both parents playing an active role in their child’s life. It’s also more beneficial for children to be raised by both parents. It can help to prevent feelings of abandonment or tension in parent-child relationships when both parents are equally present, even if the parents are no longer married.
Joint custody also works out better for children. Children who are raised in joint custody agreements are more likely to be well-adjusted than children who are raised in sole custody arrangements. For example, they exhibit fewer behavioral or emotional issues when both parents are able to work together for their well-being.
How Is a 50/50 Custody Arrangement Divided?
If you choose a 50/50 joint custody arrangement, you’ll submit a parenting plan to the court. You can divide the time any way you choose. If your 50/50 plan involves one parent taking the child for several uninterrupted months during summer vacation, you can do that.
As long as parent time is divided in a near equal way and both parents agree to the division of time, you’re allowed to do whatever feels best for your family.
Your parenting plan can also include information about which parent is responsible for covering specific costs relating to the child. This cost breakdown is an excellent idea if your joint custody plan doesn’t involve a formal child support order.
Who Is the Custodial Parent in a 50/50 Custody Agreement?
The parent who has the child for overnight visits the most — even if it’s by a small margin — would be considered the custodial parent.
A joint custody agreement is almost never 50/50. There aren’t an even number of days in the year, which means that one parent will inevitably have the child at least one day more than the other parent. On a technicality, this would make that parent the custodial parent.
Most parents won’t count each day they have their child, so they may not know who the custodial parent is. If it’s too close to call, both parents can consider themselves to be custodial parents of their child.
The term “custodial parent” can be somewhat misleading in cases of joint custody. The other parent is just as legally involved in the child’s life, even if they aren’t considered the custodial parent.
You’ll sometimes see terms like “primary residential parent” used instead of “custodial parent” or “secondary residential parent” instead of “non-custodial parent.” Many people feel these terms are a more accurate reflection of their parenting arrangement because they don’t imply that one parent doesn’t have custody of their child.
Why Do You Need To Know Who the Custodial Parent Is?
There aren’t many situations where who the custodial parent is really matters. You may occasionally need to list a custodial parent on paperwork relating to your child’s health insurance or school information. If you ever need to modify a child support order or change your custody agreement in any way, you’ll need to know who’s the custodial parent.
It also matters when tax time rolls around. Generally, the custodial parent will claim the child on their taxes. This doesn’t always have to be the case, and the IRS won’t enforce it. As long as only one parent claims the child on their taxes, everything is fine as far as the IRS is concerned.
Many parents alternate the years they claim their child on their taxes, and that’s also perfectly acceptable.
What Are the Rights and Responsibilities of a Custodial Parent?
Custodial parents have the same rights and responsibilities as married parents. As a custodial parent, you’re responsible for making decisions regarding your child’s welfare. You’ll financially support your child and make choices regarding things like their healthcare or education.
Arrangements regarding where the child will live are called physical custody arrangements. Arrangements regarding who can make decisions for the child are called legal custody arrangements. In the case of joint custody, both parents share these responsibilities.
If parents share joint legal custody of a child, both parents have to agree to decisions that impact the child’s health, education, or welfare. This is true even if legal custody is joint but one parent doesn’t have physical custody of the child. You’re equally entitled to an opinion, and you both must agree before proceeding with a big decision.
Who Pays Child Support in a 50/50 Custody Agreement?
Child support is generally paid when one parent has primary custody or sole custody of a child. Child support payments hold non-custodial parents accountable for the care of their children by requiring them to financially support their children. Since the child lives equally in each home in joint custody, child support may work differently.
You don’t need to have a child support agreement in a 50/50 custody agreement because you’re both providing for your child. Still, some parents choose to incorporate a child support agreement within their joint custody agreement.
If you pursue child support in a joint custody agreement, child support is generally paid by the parent with the larger annual income and provided to the parent with the lesser annual income. It doesn’t matter whether that parent is considered the primary parent or the secondary parent. Some circumstances may change the way the court views the situation.
Navigating child support in a joint custody agreement can get a little confusing. If you’d like to use a child support agreement, it’s wise to explore your options with a lawyer who can tell you what local law allows.
What Happens If You Don’t Follow a Joint Custody Agreement?
There may be times when parents make their own rules and schedules regarding a custody agreement, and this isn’t always an issue. If one parent gets sick and can’t safely care for their child for a while or they need to leave on a business trip for a month, it’s no problem.
As long as both parents understand the situation and agree to what’s going on, there’s usually no need to get the court involved.
However, if one parent is generally shirking responsibility, failing to communicate, and not upholding their end of the deal, the other parent can take that parent to court. Willfully failing to fulfill your custodial responsibilities can lead to being held in contempt of court.
You may need to pay a fine. In some cases, failing to abide by your role in a custody agreement can result in jail time.
If one parent cannot fulfill their obligations, it’s better for both parents to voluntarily modify their child custody arrangement. You can switch to a primary custody arrangement, where the more reliable parent will have physical custody most of the time.
In cases where child support switches from joint custody to primary custody, the parent with less custody will often have to pay more child support. The parent with primary custody can go to court and request a modification of support payments due to the parent’s reduced involvement in the child’s life. The court will usually grant this request.
Determining the Custodial Parent
A custodial parent is the parent who lives with or cares for their child the most – even if that’s by an extremely slim margin. While 50/50 custody agreements aim for equal time spent with each co-parent, it’s nearly impossible to truly divide your child’s time equally.
Ultimately, determining the custodial parent in a 50/50 custody agreement isn’t especially important. Each parent is equally involved in their child’s upbringing — both logistically and legally — and both parents have the option to consider themselves the custodial parents of their child simultaneously.