When parents divorce or separate, the parents can enter into one of several child custody arrangements. These arrangements include primary physical custody, where one parent spends most of the time with the child. Another arrangement is joint custody, where parents split custody equally. Under a sole custody arrangement, only one parent has custody of the child.

What Rights Does a Sole Custodial Parent Have?

Sole custody rights include sole legal custody rights and sole physical custody rights. A parent with sole legal custody has the exclusive right to make decisions about the child welfare. This parent also has the exclusive right to make major decisions regarding the child’s emotional and spiritual development. Sole legal custody includes the right to determine where the child resides, what type of schooling they are to receive, and what kinds of extracurricular activities the child can participate in.

A parent with sole physical custody has the exclusive right to supervise and reside with the child. If a court deems it appropriate, the other parent (called the non-custodial parent) has the right to visit the child. A court will permit the non-custodial parent to have visitation rights, if doing so is in the best interests of the child.

When is a Parent Awarded Sole Custody?

Traditionally, sole custody was a common arrangement. Courts’ and society believed that, with respect to family and child-raising matters, sole custody was the best arrangement. Over the years, courts have moved away from this model. Courts have embraced a model under which some kind of alternative arrangement, such as joint custody, is awarded.

However, there are still many instances when a court will award sole custody. A court will award sole custody when one parent is unfit, or incapable of caring for a child. A court may find that one parent is incapable of caring for a child when:

  • The parent is unable to provide adequate food, shelter, or clothing for the child;
  • The parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol;
  • The parent has a history of spousal or child abuse;
  • The parent is physically incapacitated; or
  • The parent is mentally incapacitated.

Sole custody decisions, like visitation rights decisions, are guided by the “best interests of the child’ standard. This means that a court, when deciding whether to grant sole custody, must give primary consideration to the child’s physical, emotional, and mental needs. These needs must be given consideration over the parents’ wants and needs.

What Does Sole Custody Not Include?

A noncustodial parent may be entitled to visitation rights. If this parent has these rights, the sole custodial parent must allow the noncustodial parent the opportunity to see the child. Being granted sole custody is not a license to hide the child or keep the child away from the other parent. If the other parent has visitation rights, a sole custodial parent who wants to relocate may require court permission. This allows the other parent to continue to visit the child. 

Must the Non-Custodial Parent Pay Child Support?

In a sole custody arrangement, a court can order the noncustodial parent to pay child support. Child support payments are made periodically by the noncustodial spouse. Courts do not order child support payments to benefit one parent or punish the other. Rather, child support is ordered so that there is enough money to provide for the costs of child-rearing. 

It is in a child’s best interests that there be enough money for their upbringing. Therefore, courts frequently award child support to sole custodial parents, even when the other parent has no contact with the child. 

When Can a Sole Custody Order be Changed?

Child custody orders can be changed if a parent’s or a child’s circumstances change. A noncustodial parent seeking to modify a sole custody order must show:

  • There has been a substantial change of circumstances affecting the child; and
  • Modifying the order is in the child’s best interest.

Substantial changes in circumstances include those involving:

  • The child’s current and future welfare (well-being);
  • The relationship the child has with both parents;
  • The relationship the child has with relatives of one or both parents;
  • The wishes of the child regarding custody;
  • The behavior and character of the parents; and
  • The nature of the environment in which the child resides or visits.

If such changes are present, the noncustodial parent can ask the court to modify the custody order in that parent’s favor. The sole custodial parent can, in response, present evidence as to why the arrangement should not be changed. The court will then decide whether to modify the order, keeping the best interests of the child in mind.

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

To understand your rights and responsibilities under child custody laws, you should contact a child custody attorney. An experienced attorney near you can review the facts and circumstances of your situation. The attorney can advise you as to what child custody options you have. The lawyer can represent you at hearings and court proceedings.