by Tim O’Keefe

Divorce sucks, and figuring out child custody is often the most difficult part of a divorce. Typically, both parents will share joint legal custody of their child after a divorce, which means each parent has the right to be involved in big life decisions regarding their shared child’s religion, academics, activities and healthcare. But most of the time, a parent’s biggest concern is physical custody. Joint physical custody is when the child spends equal time with each parent. Joint custody is successful when parents can work together, agree that they will do what is in their child’s best interest and live close together.

The best way to set up joint custody and ensure its long-term success is to be rational and come to an agreement between parents. If a judge determines parenting time and custody, it is unlikely that either party will be happy. Leaving this decision up to the judge increases the amount of litigation, which means more attorney fees, and is also likely to make joint custody harder to establish. Instead, the best way to make joint custody work is to come to a plan that is mutually agreeable, even if both parents have to make some compromises.

There are many several variations on schedules for joint custody, which may include week on/week off, split weeks, long weekends, midweek visits, and/or extra time in the summer or during school breaks—choose the schedule that works best for your child. When coming up with a parenting plan, be realistic and consider the child’s and both parents’ schedules. There are many different factors to consider in determining the most appropriate and reasonable schedule. Some factors to consider when determining the most appropriate and reasonable schedule are:

  • Childcare locations
  • Locations of the parent’s homes
  • Child’s activities, whether theater, sports, or academic
  • The child’s age
  • Parent’s commitments

Joint custody works best when both parents are willing to work together on a schedule that is best for the child. Joint custody also works best when parents allow for some flexibility in the set schedule.

Next, find your method of communication. If things are very amicable, simply sharing a calendar on Google Calendar and communicating via messaging or phone calls may be effective. Some parents find that emails are the best method to keep track of custody discussions. There are also several apps available, including OurFamilyWizard, Talking Parents, 2Houses and coParenter, that were specifically created for the purpose of shared custody arrangements which keep a record of messaging, calendars, or other documents for parents sharing custody. If court action becomes necessary, some parents find it is helpful to have a record of their communications through an app or email.

As part of communication, it is important to have some flexibility in parenting time—as a child gets older, he or she may become more independent, busier and more involved with activities, which makes a strict parenting plan more difficult. Flexibility is also crucial when it comes to family events, appointments and other activities for the child. With open communication and flexibility, joint custody can work.

An additional way that parents sharing custody can put the child first is to hear the child’s input about parenting time. That level of input may vary based on age, but could involve deciding which toys the child keeps at which home or allowing flexibility for special activities with a certain parent. If your child is old enough, consider their feelings about a schedule—if Bobby’s special activity with mom are his football games, maybe it is best that Bobby stays at mom’s house on Friday nights. Maybe Susie’s theater class is close to dad’s house, making it easier to stay there on theater nights. Allowing a child to be involved helps make joint custody work long term without the need for additional time in court.

Respect your ex and do not speak negatively about them. A child should not be placed in a position to hear negative things about their parent or be trapped in a middle of any disputes. A child who hears negative things or is in the middle of a dispute may experience anxiety about spending time with their parents or become stressed about interactions between their parents. Speaking negatively about your ex is just one more factor that can lead to a breakdown of open communication and not allow joint custody to work.

Finally, the most important rule about joint custody is to focus on the child and make sure the joint custody plan is in the child’s best interest. Whether you are just beginning the divorce process and working on setting up a parenting plan or have been sharing custody for years, being rational, making open communication a priority, staying flexible, and putting the child’s needs first are the best ways to make joint custody work.