Father by Law: Effects of Joint Legal Custody

on Nonresident Fathers' Involvement with Children

Judith A. Seltzer


Family membership and household composition do not always coincide. Joint legal custody after divorce formalizes the relationship between fathers and children who live apart. Policy makers hope that explicit acknowledgment of nonresident fathers' rights and responsibilities will increase their involvement with children. This paper uses prospective data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) to examine the association between joint legal custody and two aspects of nonresident fathers' contributions to children -- the frequency of visits between fathers and children and child support payments. The analysis examines approximately 160 families in which parents divorced between interviews conducted for waves 1 (1987-88) and 2 (1992-94) of the NSFH. Controlling for the quality of family relationships before separation and socioeconomic status, fathers with joint legal custody see their children more frequently, have more overnight visits, and pay more child support than fathers in families in which mothers have sole legal custody. However, among those with a formal child support order, fathers with joint legal custody pay about the same percentage of the child support order as fathers without joint legal custody. These findings support the view that joint legal custody encourages some aspects of paternal involvement after divorce.