If you're going through a divorce or separation and have children, you've probably heard the terms joint custody and sole custody. These phrases are frequently misunderstood. In the U.S., child custody can be "joint" (shared) or "sole" (awarded to just one parent).
The court makes all custody decisions in the best interest of the child. This means they will always make decisions in the best interest of the child's safety and well-being. They will decide on the custody of the child using this standard. Most courts consider joint physical custody and joint legal custody in the best interests of the child. But, if a parent is unfit, the court will lean toward granting sole custody to one parent.
This article provides an overview of sole custody and explains how it can apply in the context of a child custody dispute.
What Is Sole Custody?
A parent with sole physical and legal custody has exclusive rights concerning the child. These custody arrangements are rare since courts usually prefer joint custody for co-parents. Sole custody is usually limited to situations where a court has deemed one parent “unfit." This means they are incapable of having any responsibility over a child. Courts may deem a parent unfit due to a substance abuse issue or evidence of child abuse.
In these sole custody situations, the child's other parent (also known as the "non-custodial parent") has neither physical nor legal custody rights. They may be entitled to periods of visitation with the child. These visits may be supervised. This is especially true in situations involving domestic violence or child abuse.
Sole Legal Custody vs. Sole Physical Custody
Even if you have sole custody, there are important distinctions between legal custody and physical custody. You could have sole physical custody of a child, but joint legal custody which you share with the other parent. Massachusetts law defines these as:
- Sole Legal Custody: One parent has the right and responsibility to make major decisions regarding the child's welfare. This includes matters of education, medical care, healthcare, and emotional, moral, and religious development. They are the decision-making authority for the child.
- Sole Physical Custody: The child resides with and under the supervision of one parent, subject to reasonable visitation by the other parent. Courts may limit visitation if they determine that visitation would not be in the best interest of the child.
The Benefits of Sole Custody
The benefit of sole physical and legal custody is that the child lives with you. You don't need to consult with the other parent to make important decisions about the child's life and child's upbringing. You have primary physical custody of your child.
Being granted sole custody does not impact the other parent's right to visitation. A court may grant grandparents or other family members visitation rights. The non-custodial parent will also usually be responsible for paying child support to the custodial parent. Child support orders are usually issued in the custody case.
Having sole custody doesn't necessarily mean you can relocate without the court's permission. If the other parent has any visitation rights and relocation jeopardizes their rights, relocation is therefore an issue that the court has to address. You will likely need to modify your custody agreement.
Questions About Sole Custody for Your Child? A Family Law Attorney Can Help
When confronting a child custody matter, it's important to consider meeting with a family law attorney for advice. A lawyer can assist you in obtaining the right custody arrangement for you and your child, whether sole custody or some other arrangement. Child custody laws vary widely by state. Your attorney can help explain your state's laws to you. They can also help you understand different types of child custody and your legal rights.
A family law attorney will provide you with valuable legal advice to help you through your child custody case. They can help guide you through the complex family court process. They can also help get temporary orders in addition to your final custody order.
Get help by contacting a local child custody attorney today.