There are many different kinds of child-sharing arrangements available in Washington DC. For instance, joint custody usually involves parents sharing both legal and physical custody rights. A joint custody agreement can involve a variety of arrangements both with respect to legal custody and to physical custody.

The parents can decide to make decisions jointly with respect to legal custody. They could decide to share physical custody equally. They could also decide that the child primarily lives with one parent and then has the right to spend the rest of the time with the other parent.

Legal custody is a parent’s right and responsibility to make major decisions about their child’s education, medical, dental and mental health care, religious training, cultural upbringing, and other important factors in their life. Physical custody means who the child is physically with at any given time as well as which parent they live with on a regular basis. Physical custody can also involve visitation rights of a parent. In DC, there is a presumption of joint custody, which usually means a presumption of  shared legal and physical custody.

If parents share joint legal custody, they have a responsibility to make major or important decisions about the child’s welfare together. If they have joint physical custody, then both parents have the right to spend time with the child. They both may have the right to residential custody, overnights, and weeks at a time with the child.

Modifying a Shared Custody Arrangement

Joint custody rulings can be renegotiated after they are issued if the court makes a decision that the current arrangement is no longer in the child’s best interest and there has been a substantial and material change since the entry of the last court order. An example of a qualifying significant change may simply be the passing of time and the child getting older; however, in most cases what actually constitutes a substantial and material change in circumstances is a highly nuanced decision. Talking to a DC attorney can help you understand how the court makes decisions on forms of custody.

If the court determines that there has been a substantial and material change in the family’s circumstances, a judge can make legally binding decisions by issuing a new joint custody order. The court has the discretion to change both the legal and physical custody portions, so it is possible that even after years of sharing joint custody, it could modify the order by awarding sole custody to one parent. For example, altering physical custody could mean that the child would only spend time in one household while both parents maintain the right to make joint legal custody decisions.

Sole Custody

Sole custody could mean sole physical custody, sole legal custody, or both. Even if a parent has sole physical custody, the other party in that arrangement may still have visitation rights.

A lot of the nomenclature is deceptive because even having sole legal custody, for example, may still involve an obligation to allow the other parent to visit. A parent who has sole legal custody has the exclusive right to make important decisions about their child’s life involving  education, religious and cultural upbringing, medical and mental health needs.

While one parent may have sole physical custody, the other can still have visitation rights. On the other hand, having sole physical custody could also mean that the other parent has no access to the child and no right to visit with or see them whatsoever. A child-sharing arrangement could also prohibit any involvement of the other parent and even access to a child’s school or medical records, although that prohibition is extremely rare. A judge must consider many factors when determining which of the many forms of child custody in DC would be best for a particular family.

How Often is Sole Custody Awarded?

DC law presumes that joint physical and legal custody are in the best interests of child to preserve their relationship with both parents as well as each parents’ fundamental constitutional right to the care, custody, and control of their children. Sole custody is only awarded when the court has determined that joint custody is not in the best interests of the child.

For example, if there is a finding of severe domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, or abandonment, then an award of sole custody may be the only way to protect the survivor and the child. Because there is a presumption of joint parenting time, sole custody is rarely awarded in DC, but it can and does happen.

Ask an Attorney about the Forms of Custody Available in DC

It is important to consult with a local lawyer about different child-sharing arrangements early on in a child custody case so you can anticipate what a court is likely to order. Many people are surprised that there is a presumption of joint custody in DC, even for nursing infants and toddlers. In other jurisdictions, there still tends to be some discrimination and bias in favor of a mother’s right to having primary residential custody of a nursing infant.

There is absolutely no exception for nursing infants or very young children in DC, however.  Fathers, same sex couples who are both mothers, and same sex couples who are both fathers have the same rights as the mothers giving birth to the infants. In other words, all parents are presumed to enjoy the same legal and physical custody rights. If you are in a situation where you and your co-parent cannot agree on what custody arrangement would be in the best interest of your child, you should reach out to an attorney to learn more about the various forms of custody in DC.