Shared custody, or joint custody, occurs when a court awards the care and guardianship of a child in a divorce to both parents. The court distinguishes between shared legal custody in regard to things like determining activities, academics, and religion, and shared physical custody, where the child divides his time between the two parents' homes.
Once you and your ex have been awarded shared physical custody of your children, it can take some time to figure out the logistics. Coordinating schedules. Divvying up holidays. Shuffling kids between houses. Sharing child custody isn't always easy, especially when you're trying to agree with someone you couldn't stand being married to.
The good news: "Studies show that shared-custody situations work best when both parents are cooperative, respectful, agree on shared custody, and manage their emotions," says JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies to Help Children Thrive Through Divorce. "These qualities make it more likely that parents will help their children adjust to family changes."
We asked our experts for their best rules for making shared child custody work for you, your ex, and your kids.
Rule #1: Speak no evil.
Expert after expert (most of whom were divorced themselves) repeated this: Don't speak poorly about your ex.
"Badmouthing the ex will be internalized by the child because they are made up of both you and your ex," says David Pisarra, fathers' rights attorney at MensFamilyLaw.com and author of A Man's Guide To Child Custody. "What you say about the ex is what the child will react to, and also think about themselves."
Even though you may be pissed at your ex, your child still loves him or her as a parent. Regardless of your feelings about your ex — justified or not — keep them to yourself.
Rule #2: Joint custody is not about you.
The divorce was about you, but custody is about the kids.
"Divorce causes emotional tunnel vision and people get so focused on their own hurts and needs that they lose sight of the goal of creating a good childhood," Pisarra says. Custody is not about getting exactly what you want, or even demanding equity at any cost. "The hardest part for co-parents is remembering that time with the child is not a prize to be won, but a gift to be cherished," Pisarra says.
Shared custody works best when both parents set aside their ego and realize that what is best for the child is not always what feels good for you as a parent."
Rule #3: Be realistic about your own schedule and commitments.
"Often during a separation or divorce, parents make unrealistic custody grabs based on fear or insecurity," says Laura Wasser, a celebrity divorce attorney in Los Angeles and author of the new book It Doesn't Have to Be That Way. Instead, look at custody as a business arrangement. Remove your emotions from the situation and look at the facts.
Rule #4: Create a customized custody arrangement for your kids.
When deciding on a custody arrangement, you'll want to take the following into consideration.
Your children's ages and personalities
Your family schedule
The career and social commitments of each parent
The academic and extracurricular activities to which your children are committed
Your child-care arrangements and the distance between the parents' homes.
Here are three of the most common joint custody arrangements:
2-2-3 plan Monday and Tuesday with Mom, Wednesday and Thursday with Dad, Friday through Sunday with Mom. Then the schedule flips: Monday and Tuesday with Dad, etc.
2-2-5 plan Monday and Tuesday with Mom, Wednesday and Thursday with Dad, and then alternating Friday through Sunday between the parents (one week with Mom, the next with Dad). This schedule often works better when kids are older and have their own schedule of practices, playdates, and obligations.
Alternate week plan week 1 with Mom, week 2 with Dad, and so on.
Infants usually remain in primary care of the mothers, but toddlers and preschool-age children actually benefit from switching back and forth between households.
"Generally, mental health practitioners who specialize in development recommend that for younger children, more frequent transitions actually are beneficial," Wasser says. A 2-2-3 plan allows the child to see both parents regularly. As they get older, kids can graduate to a 2-2-5 arrangement. Then, if it's easier, parents can switch to an alternate week plan."
Rule #5: A bad spouse doesn't equal a bad parent.
Your ex may have dropped the ball and driven you crazy, but Wasser reminds her clients that "even though he or she may not have been a good spouse, it is still possible for him or her to be a good parent." In most case, Wasser says, "it is unquestionably best for children to have frequent and continuous contact with both parents." Your marriage may not have worked, but your parenting can still succeed.
"For good or bad, the child wants and needs to feel the love of both of parents," Pisarra says. How to do that? Put the needs and well-being of your children first. "Remember that when the children are with your ex, they are with the one person in the world who loves and cares about them as much as you," Wasser says.
Rule #6: Find an agreeable way to communicate
For joint child custody to work, communication is key. For the sake of your children (and your sanity), you need to find a method of communication that works for you and your ex.
"These days we have so many tools with which to organize custody," Wasser says. "There are Google calendars, icalendars, cell phones, texting, and emailing — all which provide parents with the ability to communicate with each other quickly." Pisarra points his clients to the website OurFamilyWizard.com, which offers joint calendars, expense logs, common document storage for things like a child's immunization record or school calendar, and a message board that keeps an accurate and non-modifiable record of your communications that can be admitted in court, if disagreements arise.
Rule #7: Pick your battles.
Let's be frank. Parenting is hard enough on its own, and co-parenting adds another layer of complexity. Prevent as many as conflicts as possible with your ex by open communication, but when disagreements do arise, consider if the conflict is truly worth fighting over.
"Try to be as rational about your positions as possible and remember that if a judge has to decide it, no one will like the decision most likely" Pisarra advises. "Fight only for the things that are worth fighting for. School choices, vacations, and parenting time are worth the fight. Things like food choices, unless there's a known medical issue like diabetes or food allergies, are not worth the fight." Save your energy and good will with your ex and the courts for those things that do matter.
Rule #8: Let your child feel heard.
A child experiences lots of change during a divorce. Allowing the child to express feelings and confusions about the divorce and custody arrangement can help him feel a sense of control in the midst of all that change.
"Children need to have input in the process, and depending on how old they are," Pisarra says. "That can be a simple matter with preteens, or hard to discern with toddlers." Involving your 5-year-old might mean letting him choose which Lego sets he wants to bring to his dad's house. Involving preteens and teenagers in creating a custody schedule can help ensure the schedule meshes with the teen's extracurricular activities.
Plus, a child who feels that his input was received is more likely to be agreeable to the schedule. But, says Wasser, "While it is important to listen to your children and hear their feelings, impressions and preferences, the child's opinion is only one factor that goes into making child-custody decisions." Let your children feel heard, but also make the best decision for their well being.
Rule #9: From time to time, review the arrangement and adjust as needed.
Just as your kids will grow and change over time, so should your custody arrangement. "Many parents find it helpful to review a custody agreement from time to time to assess how it is working for their children and to make adjustments, particularly as children grow and circumstances change," says Dr. Pedro-Carroll.
You and your ex may change too. Says Wasser: "If you are hoping to eventually get to an equal time share arrangement but have not historically spent as much time parenting, gradual increases are recommended."