Joint Custody of Children in Virginia
Every parent involved in a child custody dispute is concerned about the kind of custody and visitation arrangement that will result. Regardless of whether the court decides custody or the parents reach an agreement which is then approved by the court, there are two aspects of custody that must be addressed in every case: legal custody and physical custody.
In Virginia, one possible custody option is one parent being awarded sole legal custody and sole physical custody, with a visitation schedule for the other parent. An alternative to that “sole custody” arrangement would be “joint custody.”
Virginia Code Section 20-124.1 defines joint custody as follows:
- joint legal custody, where both parents retain joint responsibility for the care and control of the child and joint authority to make decisions concerning the child even though the child’s primary residence may be with only one parent;
- joint physical custody, where both parents share physical and custodial care of the child; and
- any combination of joint legal and joint physical custody which the court deems is in the best interest of the child.
So, joint custody in Virginia could refer to joint legal custody, or joint physical custody. But what is the difference?
Joint physical custody essentially refers to situations where the child is splitting time between both parents. Many different joint physical custody arrangements have been approved by Virginia courts, such as:
- The child living with both parents on an alternating weekly basis;
- The child living with one parent during the school year and the other parent during the summer; and
- The child living ten months with one parent and two months with the other parent.
Joint legal custody, on the other hand, has to do with decision-making. The child may live primarily with one parent—the “primary physical custodian”—but the parents communicate and cooperate to make important decisions in the child’s life jointly.
Virginia courts are statutorily mandated to assure minor children frequent and continuing contact with each parent, when appropriate, and to encourage parents to share in the responsibilities of raising their children. In many cases that translates to the court ordering a joint legal custody arrangement, so long as the evidence shows the parents are able and willing to (a) effectively co-parent, (b) share the decision-making and responsibilities of raising the child, and (c) allow the other parent unfettered access to the child. If that ability and willingness is absent, the court is far less likely to award joint legal custody.
Joint physical custody, in contrast, is ordered much less frequently, and in very particular circumstances. It is much more common for a court to order primary physical custody to one parent or the other, with joint legal custody between the parties.
If you are facing a child custody dispute, be sure to consult with an experienced custody lawyer in your jurisdiction. From our five convenient office locations, the custody attorneys at Livesay & Myers, P.C. represent clients throughout Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.