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Know the Facts: Research on Joint Custody

Joint custody has not been shown to have a positive impact on children when it is not voluntarily agreed to by the parents.

  • The research often used to support joint custody presumptions do not distinguish between arrangements that are voluntarily reached by the parents and those that are imposed by a court (Allen, 2014; Pruett & Barker, 2009). No research has yet suggested that joint custody leads to positive outcomes when it has been mandated, and some research has found negative outcomes accrue disproportionately among families faced with mandated joint custody (Irving et al., 1984).
  • Multiple studies have found pre-divorce differences between parents who chose joint custody as opposed to sole custody arrangements (Bauserman 2002; Ehrenberg, Hunter, & Elterman 1996), suggesting that joint custody may not be a good fit for all families.
  • While the potential benefits from cooperative parenting may be stronger in joint custody situations, the potential negative effects of conflict have been found to be stronger, as well (Johnston et al., 1989; Pruett & Barker, 2009; Tschann et al., 1989). In their review of joint custody literature, Pruett and Barker (2009, p.445) reflect that “the benefits of joint custody may be lost and the process of custody decision making may become even more costly when it is imposed on parents who are not ready to undertake it.”
  • Many presumption of joint custody proponents argue that paternal parenting time has been found to be positively related to father-child relationship quality (e.g. DeGarmo, Patras, & Eap, 2008; Dunn, Cheg, O’Connor & Bridges, 2004), however those study are correlative not causative. The way the studies were carried out, it is unclear whether fathers with high quality relationship to their children sought out more parenting time or whether more parenting time led to higher quality relationships between fathers and their children.

Research does not suggest that the current system discriminates against either parent who actively seeks parenting time.

  • The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Gender Bias Study Committee did not find evidence of gender bias in custody decisions; the committee found that when fathers actively sought custody of their children, they were awarded primary physical custody in 29% of cases and joint physical custody in an additional 65% of cases (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Gender Bias Study Committee, 1986).

 Presumptive joint custody inappropriately shifts the focus to the parents’ interests rather than the best interests of the child.

  • Presumptive joint custody may place a child with a parent who lacks experience with his/her children or who may not desire the level of involvement joint custody would impose (Pruett & Barker, 2009; Schepard, 2004).
  • Child custody decisions should be made on the basis of what is best for the child, not what is best for the parent. In re Marriage of Hansen (2007), the Supreme Court of Iowa ruled that “Physical care issues are not to be resolved based upon perceived fairness to the spouses, but primarily upon what is best for the child” (par. 62).

Joint custody attempts to take a complex issue and impose a one-size-fits-all solution that will harm many of Michigan’s most vulnerable children.

  • Joint physical custody requires a level of economic security and employment flexibility that not all parents enjoy (Juby, Le Bourdais, & Marcil-Grattan, 2005; Pruett & Barker, 2009), and the presumption of joint custody could place an especially heavy burden on low-income or economically marginalized parents.
  • Presumed joint physical custody arrangements reduce or eliminate children’s abilities to inform the court about their preferences or needs (Pruett & Barker, 2009; Schepard, 2004).
  • Researchers Pruett and Barker (2009) reviewed joint custody literature and concluded, “There are too many complexities in child development, family transitions, work schedules, and life courses to impose a social policy that assumes one pattern for all families over time” (p. 443).



Allen, H. (2014). Unpacking court divorce decrees, children’s outcomes, and three unconfounded determinants: An evidence-based look. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 55(3), 179-205.

Bauserman, R. (2002). Child adjustment in joint-custody versus sole-custody arrangements: A meta-analytic review: American Psychological Association.

DeGarmo, D. S., Patras, J., & Eap, S. (2008). Social support for divorced fathers’ parenting: Testing a stress‐buffering model. Family relations, 57(1), 35-48.

Dunn, J., Cheng, H., O’Connor, T. G., & Bridges, L. (2004). Children’s perspectives on their relationships with their nonresident fathers: Influences, outcomes and implications. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(3), 553-566.

Ehrenberg, M. F., Hunter, M. A., & Elterman, M. F. (1996). Shared parenting agreements after marital separation: The roles of empathy and narcissism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(4), 808-818.

Irving, H. H., Benjamin, M., & Trocme, N. (1984). Shared parenting: An empirical analysis utilizing a large data base. Family Process, 23, 561-569.

Johnston, J. R., Kline, M., & Tschann, J. M. (1989). Ongoing postdivorce conflict: Effects on children of joint custody and frequent access. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59(4), 576-592.

Juby, H., Le Bourdais, C., & Marcil-Gratton, N. (2005). Sharing roles, sharing custody? Couples’ characteristics and children’s living arrangements at separation. . Journal of Marriage and the Family, 67, 157-172.

Pruett, M. K., & Barker, C. (2009). Joint custody: A judicious choice for families—but how, when, and why. In R. o. M. Galatzer-Levy, L. Kraus, & J. Galatzer-Levey (Eds.), The scientific basis for child custody decisions (2nd ed., pp. 417-462). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Masachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Gender Bias Study Comm. (1990). Gender Bias Study of the Court System in Massachusetts, 24 New England Law Review, 745, 750-752. Retrieved from

Shepard, M., & Raschick, M. (1999). How child welfare workers assess and intervene around issues of domestic violence. Child maltreatment, 4(2), 148-156. doi:

Supreme Court of Iowa (2007). Marriage of Lyle Martin Hansenand Delores Lorene Hansen. No. 06-0191.

Tschann, J. M., Johnston, J. R., Kline, M., & Wallerstein, J. S. (1989). Family process and children’s functioning during divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 51(2), 431-444.


Research compiled by Rachel Goodman-Williams, MCEDSV