Child custody is a delicate issue that can lead to contentious dealings between parents. If the parents of a child cannot come to an agreement regarding custody of the child, they will likely seek court intervention to determine each of their rights and obligations. In most cases, the court will order some form of joint custody, allowing each parent the right to custody of the child. In some cases, however, courts must make the unfortunate determination that allowing a parent to have access to a child would be detrimental to the child, and grant one parent sole custody.
Many people consider custody to be the right to control the physical location of a child. Custody is multi-faceted, however, and encompasses both physical custody, which is the right to determine where the child resides, and legal custody, which is the right to make significant decisions regarding the child’s health, upbringing, and education. In prior years, the primary caretaker of a child, generally the child’s mother, would be granted sole custody. In the present day, courts are reluctant to grant one parent sole custody of a child absent a significant reason to do so, and will usually determine some sort of joint custody arrangement.
What is Sole Custody?
Sole custody is generally defined as the exclusive right of one parent to both physical and legal custody of a child. As such, a parent with sole custody will be in charge of determining where the child resides, and the child will reside with that parent at all times. Additionally, a parent with sole custody will be the only one who may make major decisions regarding the child’s welfare. If one parent has sole custody, the court may allow the other parent to have visitation rights, but depending on the circumstances, such rights may be denied. One parent will usually only be granted sole custody if the court finds the other parent to be unfit in some way, and in those situations visitation with the unfit parent may not be beneficial to the child.
Visitation with a Sole Custody Arrangement
A sole custody arrangement will not automatically exclude the other parent from visitation with their child. For example, Jen and Vince divorce and decide that Vince will stay in the family home with the children, while Jen will move into an apartment. Even though Vince is awarded sole custody, Jen is awarded a visitation schedule of dinner on Fridays and every third weekend with the children.
Mixed Sole and Joint Custody
In some cases, a court may grant a combination of joint and sole custody, with one parent having sole physical custody of a child but both parents having joint legal custody, or the court may choose to order the opposite, and grant one parent sole legal custody but allow both parents to have physical custody. The court will evaluate each case based on its unique circumstances and weigh a variety of factors in determining whether joint or sole physical and legal custody should be granted. As in all custody cases, what is in the child’s best interest is the paramount concern of the courts.
Joint Physical and Legal Custody
If it is hard for a parent to physically visit with their child often enough, parents may agree to virtual visitation, or a court may order it. Virtual visitation can be scheduled the same way as physical visitation, but it will be done by phone, webcam, or another channel of communication.
In a true joint custody situation the court will grant both parents physical and legal custody of a child. Joint physical custody may result in the child being with each parent fifty percent of the time, but frequently an even split of custody is not practical, due to either parent’s work or personal obligations, and the importance of structure in the life of school-age children. As such, a court may order any split of physical custody that is in the best interest of the child. Where parents are granted joint legal custody, they each have the right to weigh in on significant decisions that will affect the child, such as where the child goes to school, which physician treats the child, or whether the child will observe a certain religion. Where joint legal custody is ordered, parents will usually have to consult with one another before deciding on a course of action or making a significant decision regarding the child. In some cases, a court may grant joint legal custody in general, but grant one parent sole legal custody as it pertains to a specific issue, such as where a child may go to school.
As with all custody cases, unless a parent’s parental rights have been terminated, either voluntarily or by an order of the court, a custody agreement or order can be modified upon petition, if the court finds just cause to do so. Generally the court will look at whether the circumstances surrounding the situation have changed significantly, thereby requiring a modification to further the child’s best interests. Therefore, a joint or sole custody situation may not be permanent.