Many residents of Sacramento County have heard the phrase, “the devil is in the details.” The exact meaning of the phrase often remains obscure until a person goes through a divorce involving custody of minor children. Whether parents agree or disagree on which of them will have custody of the children, the details that must be settled either by agreement or court order are numerous. The failure to give proper consideration to one or more of these details can derail even a well-intentioned parenting plan.

Many divorcing couples opt for joint custody of the children because they know that children fare better if both parents are involved in their lives. Sometimes, however, a failure to understand the basic mechanics of joint custody can lead parents to make wrong choices for themselves or their children. Child custody means either legal custody or physical custody. Legal custody refers to the parental right to make decisions for children in the areas of education, health care, general welfare and religion. Physical custody refers to the parent with whom the children will live.

Joint physical custody can be easier to negotiate than joint legal custody. Joint physical custody is usually a series of periods of sole custody by one parent or the other. Therefore, physical custody can be easily and neatly divided into months, weeks, days and hours (if necessary) that measure when periods of sole custody begin and end. Joint legal custody can be more difficult because the right to make a decision regarding education, for example, cannot be easily split. A child, especially a young child, must attend a single school, even if the parents cannot agree on which school that will be. Decisions regarding health care, religion and similar matters are not easily susceptible to joint decision making.

The parents must first decide if they can agree on how the choices regarding physical custody and legal custody will be made. A surprising number of couples are able to reach such agreements. A healthy dose of compromise can make things easier for both the parents and the children. If an agreement seems out of reach, a divorcing parent would do well to remember that the alternative to agreement is submitting the decision to the judge.