For couples with children, the hardest part of breaking up is determining who the children should live with and how to share the child care responsibilities. There are two main types of child custody: legal custody and physical custody.
Legal custody pertains to major decisions regarding the children, which are usually decisions involving the education, medical care, residence or religion of the children. In most circumstances where the parties have previously made any such major decisions jointly and have the ability to effectively communicate about their children, they will be granted shared legal custody. In other words, neither party will be able to make a major decision regarding the children without the other parent's consent or a court order.
Physical custody addresses where the children are going to live. Joint physical custody is preferred in cases where the parents are capable of getting along, are willing to share equal financial and caregiving responsibility of the children, and have historically done so. However, this type of shared parenting is not possible in every case, as it may not be what is in the children's best interests. It is important to minimize disruption to the routine and schedule that the children have become accustomed to, and to consider who has been the children's primary caregiving parent.
If joint custody is not best for the children, then one parent will be awarded primary physical custody, subject to a parenting plan that gives the other party parenting time with the children. There is no "right" or "wrong" parenting plan, and parties can and should work together to craft a schedule that is best for their family.
Generally, courts and many experts believe that shared parenting is better for the child's wellbeing, as long as the parents are on the same page. Parents interested in shared parenting must compromise on what is in the child's best interest and come up with a parenting agreement that they can both stick to. These agreements may be adjusted as the child gets older and their needs change.
Source: FindLaw, "Shared Parenting vs. Sole Custody," accessed on July 24, 2017