There are generally two types of child custody — legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to whomever makes major life decisions for the child (usually health, educational and religious decisions, although is is important to note that that, without the prior permission of the other parent or court, even a parent with sole legal custody can’t remove the child from Massachusetts permanently). Physical custody refers to whomever has the child “physically” on a day-to-day basis. One issue that frequently arises is that of joint physical custody, where custody of the child is shared by both parents. This involves many aspects, such as visitation vs parenting plans and whether joint physical custody is beneficial or detrimental to the child.

Commonly, both parents will seek sole physical custody during a separation or divorce, and the court must decide what is in the best interest of the children. A compromise solution would be for the parents to settle for joint physical custody, which typically means the child will spend an equal time with each parent, perhaps several weeks or months at a time with each parent. The pro argument goes that this is beneficial for the child because the child gets to spend equal time with each parent, thereby receiving more balanced nurturing. However, the con argument is that this is ultimately detrimental and disruptive to the child’s well-being, as the child never has the opportunity to settle into a single home with either parent, but is constantly shuttled back and forth, thereby having no sense of stability in his or her young life. Thus the court must decide in favor of what is in the best interest of the child.

Generally, the court will seek to keep siblings together and assign sole custody to one “custodial” parent, with visitation rights extended to the other, “noncustodial” parent, or the modern version of “a parently plan.” These rights may include the child spending several hours, weekends or some vacation time with the noncustodial parent. If there is any concern over the child’s safety with the noncustodial parent, supervised visitation may be ordered.

Massachusetts child custody laws allow shared physical custody, or co-parenting if the co-parents can arrive at a mutual agreement outside of court to continue to raise their child together with some type of joint physical custody arrangement. This arrangement must be submitted in detail to the court for review, at which point the court may approve the co-parenting plan as submitted, or modify the plan prior to approval. The details included in the co-parenting plan cover issues such as how custodial time will be split between the co-parents and how expenses will be split. If the co-parents are not able to reach an agreement on a custody the Massachusetts child custody laws and courts will determine issues of custody, visitation, and support in accordance with the best interests of the child.