How Does Joint Custody Work?


Mother with little boy in vintage style, outdoor portrait

Divorce is difficult enough when there are no children involved. When children are involved, it tends to markedly raise the stress and worry levels of a divorce for the parties. One of the most important, and often most contentious, issues in a divorce that involves minor children is the issue of custody. Who will the child live with the majority of the time? Is it possible – and practical – for parents to have joint custody? A Tennessee child custody lawyer explains how joint custody works and explains how to go about getting a court to consider shared custody of a minor child.

Understanding the Terminology

Although most people still routinely use terms such as “custody” and “visitation,” it is important for prospective litigants to understand that the law no longer uses those terms. Instead, the parent who has the child the majority of the time is referred to as the “primary residential parent” while the other parent is the “alternative residential parent.” Instead of using the term “visitation,” time a child spends with a parent is referred to as “parenting time.”  Another important term to know is “ultimate decision-maker.” This refers to the parent who has the legal authority to make important decisions relating to the child if the parents are unable to agree.

What Is “Joint Custody?”

Historically, when the parents of a minor child ended their marriage, physical custody of the minor child was awarded to the mother absent a very good reason to deny her custody. Legal custody, which referred to the right to make important decisions relating to the child, was often awarded jointly to both parents. Today, when the parents of a minor child divorce, both parents are strongly encouraged to remain in the child’s life by exercising “parenting time” with the child. In an ideal world, the parents would, indeed, share parenting time equally. Although one parent is officially designated as the primary residential parent for issues such as which school the child will attend, the parenting time schedule can be set up so that the child spends an equal amount of time with both parents.  The parents can also share decision-making authority; however, once again the law wants one parent to designated as the ultimate decision-maker in the event of a dispute.

If both parties are in agreement with regard to parenting time and related issues, the terms of that agreement can be included in the Parenting Plan that must be submitted to the court. The court must approve the plan, but if the parents agree, the court will usually approve. If the parents are unable to reach an agreement on any of the terms of the divorce, the court will have to decide.

Challenges of Obtaining Joint Custody

If you and your spouse do not agree to the idea of shared parenting time, it will be an uphill battle to get a court to order it. One reason for this is that sharing “custody” of a minor child typically requires a considerable amount of cooperation between the parents. In a judge’s eye, if the parents cannot even agree on the concept of shared parenting, how will they ever make it work in reality. For shared parenting to work, the parents often have to live very close to each other until the child reaches adulthood so that they remain within the same school district. They also may need to coordinate school and extra-curricular activity schedules on a weekly basis. Although most judges encourage both parents to remain active in a child’s life, granting “joint custody” is not something judges like to do unless they are convinced that both parents are committed to the level of cooperation and civility that is required for it to work.

Contact a Tennessee Child Custody Lawyer

If you have additional questions or concerns about joint custody in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Tennessee child custody lawyer at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.

Stan Bennett