Those who aren’t familiar with child custody options often think that joint custody automatically means the kids split their time equally between each parent’s house. That’s only the case for joint physical custody. You can also have joint legal custody with or without joint physical custody.

What is joint legal custody and how does it work if the children aren’t spending an equal amount of time with each parent? Find out more in the short guide below, including how a family law attorney can help if you have custody concerns.

The Difference Between Legal Custody and Physical Custody

Physical custody refers to which parent the children reside with. In a situation involving joint physical custody, the kids may split their time approximately 50/50 between each home. In some cases, you can have joint physical custody with a slight imbalance on where kids reside, simply for logistical and practical purposes.

Legal custody refers to which parent has the right to make major decisions about the care and treatment of the children. Those include decisions about where the kids go to school or what medical care is appropriate. In a situation involving joint legal custody, both parents are meant to have an equal say in these matters. In theory, they must come to agreements about all of these decisions.

In both cases, joint custody is contrasted with sole custody. Sole physical custody means that the children spend all or most of their time with one parent. The other parent may get the kids every other weekend or on certain holidays or be allowed supervised visitation, depending on the factors in the case. Sole legal custody means that only one parent has the right to make major decisions for the kids.

Some Common Challenges for Joint Legal Custody When Physical Custody Is Not Joint

Co-parenting of any type comes with challenges, but there are some specific bumps parents can hit when they’re dealing with a joint legal custody situation where physical custody is not joint.

The parent with physical custody may feel that they need to make some decisions without consulting the other parent. This isn’t always because they are resisting shared legal custody, either. They may simply run into frustrations with having to reach out constantly or explain scenarios to the person that wasn’t there. In some cases, they may feel they can’t wait and need to make a decision in the moment.

The parent that doesn’t have physical custody may not spend as much time with the children. That can create a scenario where he or she doesn’t know the children as deeply as the other person or isn’t up-to-date on new issues, emotions, or interests. That can put the non-custodial parent at a disadvantage when attempting to provide input for decisions.

Both parents may also become frustrated by differences or the inability to agree on what is best for their children. That can lead to stress, tension, and increased negativity in the relationship between the people attempting to coparent.

Can Joint Legal Custody Work Without Joint Physical Custody?

Every family is different, and it’s important to take time to consider what would work best for yours. That being said, joint legal custody can certainly work, even when joint physical custody isn’t present. Some factors that can increase the chances of this arrangement working include:

  • Parents who are committed to working together to make decisions
  • Parents who share many of the same values and goals for raising their kids
  • A civil divorce or other split that hasn’t left either parent feeling extremely hurt or negative toward the other
  • Both parents having demonstrated a willingness to put the best interests of the kids ahead of their own need to “be right”
  • Both parents being willing to put in the communication work necessary to support joint legal custody

Only you can decide what is best for your family, but there are some things you can do to help support success with joint legal custody. For example, you can take regular time to sit down with the other parent to map out goals and plans, discuss major decisions, and present reasons for why you want to go a certain way.


It may be a good idea to put all agreements in writing so that you can both refer to them later. It’s easy to forget what was decided, especially if things get heated later. You might also consider creating some structure around communications, such as what decisions can be made without the other parent and how to reach each other when major things come up and need fast resolutions.

Working for What’s Best for Your Children

While joint custody has many benefits for parents and children alike, it’s not always the best solution. Indiana family courts tend to make decisions that let both parents remain actively involved in children’s life — as evidenced by the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines.

However, courts always consider the best interests of the children. They usually won’t award joint legal custody if one parent is often absent or out-of-touch or has demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to engage in positive decision-making for children.

If you’re dealing with a child custody battle or don’t think your current custody situation is in the best interests of your children, contact the Law Office of Deidra Haynes to find out how we can help.