In situations where parents divorce or separate, they can enter into child custody arrangements, such as primary physical custody or joint custody. However, under a sole custody arrangement, only one parent has custody of the child, giving them exclusive rights to make decisions regarding their upbringing and living situation.

What Rights Does a Sole Custodial Parent Have?

A parent with sole custody has both sole legal and physical custody rights. Sole legal custody grants the parent the exclusive authority to make various important decisions about the child’s welfare, education, and extracurricular activities.

Some examples of these decisions include the following:

  • Medical care: The parent with sole legal custody has the authority to make decisions regarding the child’s healthcare, such as choosing healthcare providers, consenting to medical treatments, and deciding on vaccinations.
  • Education: This parent can decide where the child will attend school, whether it is public, private, or homeschooling, and can make decisions regarding the child’s educational needs, such as enrolling them in special programs, tutoring, or addressing learning disabilities.
  • Religion: The parent with sole legal custody can determine the child’s religious upbringing, including which faith they will be raised in, if any, and what religious practices they will participate in.
  • Extracurricular activities: This parent has the right to decide which sports, clubs, or other extracurricular activities the child will participate in. Control of extracurricular activities can also include decisions about enrolling the child in music lessons, dance classes, or sports teams.
  • Travel: The sole custodial parent can make decisions about the child’s travel, including obtaining a passport, planning vacations, or authorizing out-of-state or international trips.
  • Legal matters: The parent with sole legal custody has the authority to represent the child in legal matters, such as signing contracts or representing them in court proceedings related to their welfare.

While the parent with sole legal custody has the exclusive right to make these decisions, they are still expected to act in the child’s best interest. Additionally, the noncustodial parent may be granted visitation rights if the court determines it is in the child’s best interest.

When Is a Parent Awarded Sole Custody?

Although courts and society have moved towards alternative custody arrangements, such as joint custody, there are still cases where sole custody is awarded.

A court may grant sole custody if one parent is deemed unfit or incapable of caring for the child due to various factors.

Here are some examples:

  1. Substance abuse: A parent with a severe drug or alcohol addiction may be deemed unfit to care for a child. This addiction could impair their judgment, endanger the child, or create an unstable living environment.
  2. History of abuse: If a parent has a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse towards the child or another family member, the court may consider them unfit for custody.
  3. Mental incapacitation: A parent with a severe mental illness or cognitive impairment that prevents them from providing proper care and making sound decisions for the child may be deemed unfit for custody.
  4. Criminal history: A parent with a significant criminal history may be considered unfit for custody, particularly if it involves violence or actions that put the child’s safety at risk.
  5. Neglect: A parent who has consistently failed to provide basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, or medical care for the child may be deemed unfit for custody.
  6. Parental alienation: If a parent intentionally and consistently undermines the relationship between the child and the other parent, it may be considered a form of emotional abuse, and the court may deem them unfit for custody.
  7. Child abandonment: If a parent has abandoned the child for an extended period without any communication or support, it may be deemed as neglect and result in a finding of unfitness for custody.

The court’s primary consideration in awarding sole custody is the child’s best interest. This involves focusing on the child’s physical, emotional, and mental needs over the parents’ preferences.

The following are some examples of these needs and how the court considers them:

  1. Stability and continuity: The court considers the child’s need for a stable and consistent living environment. Establishing stability and continuity may involve evaluating the length of time the child has lived in one location, the parent’s ability to provide a stable home, and the presence of other supportive family members.
  2. Emotional well-being: The court evaluates each parent’s ability to support the child’s emotional needs, including providing love, affection, and a nurturing environment.
  3. Physical health and safety: The court assesses each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s physical health and safety, including ensuring proper nutrition, medical care, and a safe living environment.
  4. Education: The court considers each parent’s commitment to the child’s educational needs, such as their willingness to communicate with teachers, attend school meetings, and support the child’s academic progress.
  5. Parent-child relationship: The court examines the bond between the child and each parent, taking into account the child’s preference (if they are old enough to express one) and the quality of the relationship.
  6. Parental cooperation and communication: The court considers the parents’ ability to communicate and cooperate in matters related to the child, as well as their willingness to support the child’s relationship with the other parent.

In considering these factors, the court aims to determine which parent best suits the child’s needs and provides a stable, nurturing environment that promotes their overall well-being.

What Does Sole Custody Not Include?

Even when sole custody is granted, the noncustodial parent may still have visitation rights. The custodial parent is required to allow the noncustodial parent access to the child and may need court permission to relocate, ensuring the other parent can maintain their visitation rights.

Must the Noncustodial Parent Pay Child Support?

In cases of sole custody, the court may order the noncustodial parent to pay child support. These periodic payments are intended to ensure sufficient funds are available for the child’s upbringing rather than benefiting one parent or punishing the other.

When Can a Sole Custody Order be Changed?

Child custody orders can be modified if there is a substantial change in the circumstances of the parent or child. A noncustodial parent must demonstrate the changes and prove that modifying the order is in the child’s best interest.

  • Factors considered include the child’s welfare;
  • Relationships with parents and relatives;
  • Wishes regarding custody;
  • The behavior and character of the parents.

The court will then decide whether to modify the order based on the child’s best interests.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Sole Custody Laws?

Understanding your rights and responsibilities under child custody laws can be complex, so contacting a child custody lawyer is advised. An experienced attorney can review your situation, advise you on your options, and represent you in court proceedings and hearings.

LegalMatch can help connect you with a qualified child custody lawyer in your area who can provide legal assistance for your sole custody case. By submitting your case details on LegalMatch’s platform, you will be matched with attorneys with experience handling cases similar to yours.

You can then review each attorney’s profile and compare their qualifications, rates, and reviews to find the best fit for your needs. Use LegalMatch to match with a lawyer with the knowledge and experience to handle your case effectively.