Ordinarily parents make decisions about their children together. But when parents divorce, the hostility between them sometimes causes them to disagree on what is best for the children. In addition, divorce presents a whole new set of child-rearing challenges. Even the best parents may find it useful to consult a child development expert for help in meeting these challenges.
Issues related to children can present challenges for your lawyer as well. While your lawyer's loyalty is to you, your lawyer also has an obligation as an officer of the court to keep the best interest of the children in mind, even if that interest is inconsistent with yours.
B. Legal and Physical Custody
Some states make a distinction between physical custody and legal custody. The terminology varies from state to state.
Physical custody is the responsibility of having the children live with you. The parent with whom the children are at the time has the responsibility for making day-to-day decisions about them. Day to day decisions include what the children eat and wear, who they play with and when they go to bed. Legal custody is the right to make important long-term decisions affecting your children's welfare. Long-term decisions made by the parent with legal custody may include the children's education, religion, and non-emergency medical care.
Many variations are possible. There can be joint legal custody and sole physical custody, and vice versa. Usually the parent without physical custody has visitation rights, also called access or secondary physical custody. The terminology is less important than how the arrangement works in practice.
C. Joint Custody
There is no one standard joint custody arrangement. Some parents alternate weeks with the children, others alternate months. Still others divide the children's time unequally, but in a manner that meets the needs of each particular family. Parents who work out these arrangements themselves are usually more creative than courts are when the parents can't agree. Legal custody, in which the parents share the right to make certain decisions for the children, can also be joint or divided in appropriate cases. Joint custody is not necessarily appropriate in every case.