Volume 28 - Article 29 | Pages 821–848  

Characteristics of joint physical custody families in Flanders

By An Katrien Sodermans, Koen Matthijs, Gray Swicegood


Background: Research conducted in the 1990s showed that children who live alternately with their mother and father after divorce (joint physical custody) have closer relationships with both parents and better emotional outcomes. In 1995 and 2006, joint legal custody and joint physical custody became the default judicial recommendations in Belgium. These defaults served to increase the incidence of joint custody arrangements. However, parents with joint physical custody arrangements who divorced before 2006 may have had higher socio-economic standing and lower conflict relationships than couples that divorced afterwards. Thus earlier research on the impact of joint physical custody arrangements on child outcomes may be too optimistic when considering children of recently divorced parents.

Objective: This study examines the characteristics of four different physical custody arrangements (sole mother, sole father, joint physical, and flexible custody) in Flanders, Belgium, and whether these characteristics have changed over time. The legal changes in 1995 and 2006 are used to distinguish three divorce cohorts.

Methods: We use data on 2,207 couples that legally divorced between 1971 and 2010 from the Divorce in Flanders project, a large-scale representative multi-actor survey. Multinomial logistic regression models provide estimates of the likelihoods of different physical custody arrangements.

Results: The incidence of sole mother custody has decreased over the last decades and children increasingly alternate between the households of the mother and the father after divorce. The incidence of sole father custody has remained low. Higher educated parents are more likely to have joint physical custody arrangements than parents from lower social classes. Also, within couples, relative educational levels are important because the higher educated spouse is more likely to have physical custody of the child. We also find that the associations between socio-demographic variables and custody outcomes have changed over time. Prior to the legal changes low-conflict couples were overrepresented in joint physical custody arrangements, but this pattern has now disappeared.

Conclusions: Flanders has clearly followed the road towards more gender-neutral parenting. Hand in hand with changing legislation, joint physical custody has become more prevalent, and the socio-demographic profile of joint-custody families has become more heterogeneous. The increased likelihood that higher-conflict couples enter joint physical custody arrangements may have important consequences for the children involved.

Author's Affiliation

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