As a legal term, child custody refers to the legal and practical relationship between a child and their divorced parent, or legal guardian. It is important to note that laws regarding child custody vary by jurisdiction. 

However, the child’s best interest standard is what courts generally adhere to when making child custody decisions. Child custody law places the child’s interests and backgrounds above the parent’s personal preferences. This means that the family law courts will only make decisions regarding child custody arrangements if they benefit the child.

When determining child custody, some of what the courts will generally consider include the following factors:

  • Each parent’s relationship with the child;
  • Whether one parent has been the child’s primary caretaker;
  • The child’s background; and/or
  • The child’s mental and physical health.

Courts cannot use the following to determine child custody arrangements:

  • Race;
  • Religion;
  • Gender; or
  • Disability.

Legal custody refers to the right and obligation to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing, as well as making decisions on behalf of the child. These decisions could include the child’s education, medical care, and religious education. Physical custody refers to the physical placement of the child. 

Thus, a parent who has physical custody will typically have the exclusive right to determine the child’s primary residence, and where they spend most of their time. It is very likely that if a parent has physical custody of their child, they will also have legal custody rights. However, there are different types of child custody arrangements and each has its own legal and physical custody designations.

What is the Definition of Sole Custody?

Sole custody refers to a specific type of child custody arrangement in which only one parent or legal guardian is granted both physical and legal custody of the child. This parent is referred to as the custodial parent, and they generally have the exclusive legal right to make decisions on behalf of their child. The custodial parent is responsible for the child’s physical needs as well. 

Sole custody may be to a person awarded when:

  • The other parent, i.e. the non custodial parent, is incapacitated, incarcerated, or otherwise unable to assist in raising the child and sharing custody rights;
  • One parent has voluntarily forfeited their parental rights and responsibilities;
  • The non custodial parent has a documented history spousal or child abuse, domestic violence, or child neglect; and/or
  • Both parents are unable to assume any responsibility for their child, in which case another party would assume sole custody. For example, a grandparent or other close relative may be awarded custody of the child.

Another type of child custody arrangement which is similar to sole custody is full custody. Full custody is a type of child custody arrangement in which only one parent assumes all responsibilities related to caring for and raising their child. 

Although this arrangement is very similar to sole custody, the main difference lies in that in a full custody arrangement, one parent may have legal and physical custody of the child while the other parent is granted some visitation rights. Under sole custody, the other parent has no visitation rights at all.

Are There Any Alternatives to a Sole Custody Arrangement?

A court will generally only order sole custody if it is in the child’s best interests. In some cases, sole custody may be converted to a full custody arrangement if the court sees that this would better suit the child’s needs. 

An example of this would be if the non custodial parent demonstrates significant changes, such as good behavior or conduct, and applies for some visitation rights. It is generally believed that a healthy relationship with both parents better benefits the child, and courts typically take that into consideration when making decisions.

Another alternative to sole custody is for both parents to agree to shared custody, or joint custody. However, these sorts of arrangements will only be granted if there is no history of neglect or abuse. Again, the child’s best interests are placed above the parent’s preferences.

Child custody arrangements are detailed in a child custody order, which is issued by the court and are considered to be final. Both parents must adhere to the order or risk being held in contempt of court. 

However, child custody orders may be modified if there is a good reason to do so, such as a significant change in circumstances. In order to obtain a modification, the requesting party will need to petition the court for a modification and provide evidence supporting why they should be granted visitation or custody rights. The court will hear their case and decide if a change in child custody arrangement is in the child’s best interests.

Do I Need an Attorney to Obtain Sole Custody?

You should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable child custody attorney if you are seeking sole custody rights, or wish to modify your current child custody order. An experienced child custody attorney can help you understand your state’s specific laws regarding child custody, as well as inform you of your rights and options. Additionally, an attorney can file the necessary legal paperwork to initiate a modification, as well as represent you in court as needed.