Co-Parenting Primer

by Brette Sember

Dave and Karen have just gotten divorced. Their divorce wasn't pleasant but it was reasonable, especially when it came to custody. The kids live with Karen, and Dave sees them every other weekend and one night per week. Their divorce decree refers to their "co-parenting" plan and talks about joint legal custody with Karen having residential custody. Neither one of them is quite sure what all of these words mean or how they are supposed to co-parent when what they want more than anything is to start their own separate lives.

co-parenting"Co-parenting" is a big buzz word when it comes to divorce. You've probably heard about the importance of co-parenting, but understanding what co-parenting really is and how to make it work requires delving beneath the hot word of the day.

Types of Custody Arrangements

Before you can even begin to try to co-parent together or understand what co-parenting is, it is important to understand what the custody options are when your marriage or relationship ends. There a variety of arrangements possible. The biggest distinction is between legal custody and physical custody.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to parental authority and decision making power. Parents can have joint or sole legal custody. Parents who share joint legal custody are supposed to make important decisions about the child together (and is truly at the root of co-parenting). These include education, health, religion, and other major decisions.

In theory, joint legal custody requires the parents to truly cooperate. In reality, often parents are given joint legal custody simply because it is a way of making the parent who does not have primary physical custody feel better about the situation.

I've worked with several families where a schedule was easy to create, but the father would not agree to it because he did not technically have joint custody. Changing that wording made the agreement more palatable -- parents like to be able to say, "I have joint custody of my children." Often this designation is in words only -- parents who couldn't work together before are not magically transformed into cooperative parents by a court decree. Often the residential parent ends up being the one who makes many decisions about the child without the other's input.

On the other hand, just because one parent is given sole legal custody does not mean that the other parent is completely shut out of participating in decisions about the child's life. Your custody arrangement is what you make of it.

Physical Custody

Physical custody has to do with how the child's time is shared by the parents. There are an infinite number of ways time can be shared -- any possible schedule permutation can you think of. However, there are a few ways these arrangements can be characterized. First, let's consider the child's primary residence. In most custody arrangements, the child has one home base -- the parent's home at which he or she spends the most time. This parent is sometimes referred to as the residential or primary parent.

If one parent is given sole physical custody, it means that the child spends all of his or her time with that parent and does not see the other parent. This is rare, except in cases of abuse or neglect. Parents can also have joint or shared physical custody, which means they share the child's time in a relatively equal way, such as alternating weeks or months, or splitting the weeks in half. As great as this sounds, it doesn't work for many families. Most commonly one parent is given primary custody or residential custody and the other is given visitation.

What is Co-Parenting?

Generally speaking, co-parenting refers to two parents continuing to function as a parental unit after a divorce. Instead of going their separate ways and never speaking or cooperating, co-parents continue to see themselves as a parenting team who must work together and rely on each other to raise their children together.