In Maryland, the law doesn't presume that joint custody or sole custody is in the best interests of the children. This differs from many states, which start from a position that presumes joint custody is desirable, and requires parties to demonstrate that it is not.
The fact that Maryland doesn't have a legal presumption in favor of joint custody doesn't mean that it's harder to get. In fact, many divorcing or separating parents do end up with joint custody. There are many advantages to joint custody, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right thing for your family. Let's take a look at some of the reasons you may want to consider joint custody, and some reasons you might conclude it's not best for your kids.
When we speak of "joint custody," we're actually talking about two different things: physical and legal custody. Physical custody is what most people think of as custody: where the child physically resides. Legal custody refers to who gets to make important decisions for the child, such as educational, religious, and medical decisions.
Joint physical custody has one obvious advantage for children: it lets kids spend a substantial amount of time with both parents. This means that rather than the children feeling like they are "visiting" one parent, they get to be at home with both parents. And while parents miss their kids while they're with the other parent, joint physical custody also gives parents some needed time to themselves.
While joint physical custody does not mean that the kids will spend exactly equal amounts of time with each parent, it can reduce the unintended effect of one parent having to serve as the disciplinarian, while the parent who sees the kids only for limited periods gets to be the "fun" parent. No one wants to deal with a co-parent who hands back an undisciplined, unwashed, sugared-up child at the end of a day of "visitation." With joint physical custody, both parents have to live with the results of their parenting.
As for joint legal custody, a major advantage is that "two heads are better than one." It can be easier for parents, and better for children, when the adults have someone to confer with regarding the major decisions. Two legal custodians can mean the advantage of two different perspectives.
There's no doubt that joint custody can be good for kids, IF parents are able to do one thing: keep the best interests of the children as their guiding principle. It's good for children to have two loving, dedicated parents deeply involved in their lives. It's very bad for children to be whipsawed back and forth between two different homes where the rules and expectations are different. Children in such situations may barely have time to adjust to the "law of the land" at one home before being whisked back to the other. This can lead to insecurity, anxiety, depression, and acting out.
The more stability and consistency parents can provide between homes, and the more cordially they are able to work together to make decisions for the children, the better off the children are likely to be. That means that in order for joint custody to work, both parents must be focused on the children's needs, not on punishing or spying on each other. It also means that while it's okay for parents to have different styles, they must be able to communicate well enough to help the children navigate those differences.
Of course if deeper problems exist, like a history of physical or verbal abuse by one parent, or one parent having a history of behavior that endangers the child, such as driving under the influence or passing out from drinking while a child is in their care, joint custody is not appropriate. When joint custody is not appropriate, an attorney can help you present evidence that will help a judge decide against joint custody in order to keep your children safe.
If you'd like joint custody, but are unsure if you can actually make joint custody work with your children's other parent, it may be better to try negotiation as opposed to litigation. With the support of attorneys committed to helping you resolve your differences, such as in collaborative law or mediation, you may be able to craft a creative parenting plan that will allow you to overcome barriers and work together as successful co-parents.
If you have children and are divorcing, or if you are in the midst of an ongoing custody dispute, contact the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, LLC. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your children's needs with you and help you decide if joint custody is right for your family.