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What is Joint Custody?


There are a lot of different terms describing child custody and people often have different opinions about what each term means. A parent will often call us and claim that they “got full custody.” And then their friend really thinks that they really need full custody as well. But what does full custody really mean?

Let’s face it: how Michigan law describes each term is what matters and how the court orders spell out the parenting time specifics is what matters. Let’s start with the most important part of this discussion first. 

Physical Child Custody Vs. Legal Child Custody And Other Custody Terms

There are two kinds of custody:  physical and legal. Physical custody is where the child is living; legal custody is a parent’s right to make major decisions about their child’s schooling and medical care. Whenever a judge orders custody, the order should address both kinds of custody.

The next thing to consider is the terms joint custody, shared custody, primary custody, and sole custody. These terms are mostly self-explanatory. If you have joint or shared custody, you and the other parent share the custody – either physical or legal. Joint is usually understood as equal; shared does not necessarily mean equal. Often there is no difference between joint or shared.

Shared Physical Custody Complications 

What’s complicated about having “shared physical custody” or “joint physical custody” is that there is no mathematical formula for what joint means.  It does not automatically mean that parents who share physical custody have an exact equal amount of parenting time. Sometimes to make parents feel good about their custody order, a parent may receive joint physical custody, but only have 30% of the available parenting time.

In other words, when you review your proposed custody order, get to the bottom line, and figure out if you agree with the parenting time that will be given to you.

Joint legal custody is very common in Michigan even though not all parents actively make joint decisions.

Final Important Things to Review in Your Child Custody Order 

A final word of warning about custody orders, some court orders provide one parent with sole physical custody, but the order does not mention legal custody. If that’s the case, then there is no automatic right for shared legal custody.   Some orders use the words sole or primary physical custody, but there may be reasonable and liberal parenting time delineated for the non-custodial parent.  The specifics rule, not the general titles.  Again, read your order thoroughly and make sure that it addresses everything that is important to you. If you need additional assistance reach out to a Grand Rapids child custody attorney at 616-285-0808 or online 24/7.