How to get sole custody

by Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.
updated January 25, 2023 ·  3min read

Many parents head into their divorce proceedings without a solid understanding of the differences between full custody and sole custody. They aren't the same thing, so you need to know what you're asking for when you head into court.

Sole custody includes both legal and physical custody. A parent can have one or the other. Full custody is when both legal and physical custody are awarded to one parent.

Father holding hand crossing street

Sole custody vs. joint custody

For some families, sole custody can be the best outcome for the child. Here's what sole custody entails:

  1. Sole physical custody is where the child lives primarily with one parent, while the other parent has visitation rights.
  2. Sole legal custody is where one parent has decision-making authority. This includes making major decisions about education, religion, and medical care.
  3. Sometimes a parent will have both sole physical custody and sole legal custody, although this is the exception, rather than the rule.
  4. Often, if one parent has sole physical custody, the parents have joint legal custody, which requires discussing major decisions and coming to an agreement.
  5. Joint custody, or shared custody, can be either joint physical custody, joint legal custody, or both. With joint physical custody, the child lives with each parent for a certain percentage of time, such as part of a week or every other week.
  6. Each state has its own view of custody, but because courts want both parents involved in the child's life, judges typically want the parents to have joint custody.

How to obtain full custody

How can you get full custody if joint custody is what most courts want? There are certain elements you must show to defeat a court's preference for joint custody. How to get sole legal custody or sole physical custody, or both, can happen if the following are true:

  • Sole custody is in the best interests of the child, and
  • Joint custody isn't a good idea because you and your spouse can't get along well enough to co-parent your child

Almost all states require the court to consider the best interests of the child before awarding sole custody. If sole custody isn't in your child's best interests, you will probably have to settle for joint custody.

Some scenarios in which you have a better chance of getting sole custody:

  • The other parent is unable to adequately raise or properly supervise the child
  • The other parent has neglected, abused, or abandoned the child
  • You have a more flexible work schedule than the other parent, or you're available to take care of the child more often
  • You have a restraining or protective order against the other parent, and the other parent poses a threat to the child
  • The child is old enough to express his preference, and your state allows your child to have input about his custody
  • The child has special needs, which you are better equipped to handle
  • The child has bonded better with you and is thriving in your care
  • You are the primary caregiver, and the other parent has minimal involvement in the child's upbringing
  • You are the better parent at helping ensure the child's educational success
  • You have more financial stability than the other parent
  • You offer the child a more stable home environment (shelter, food, attention)
  • The other parent has serious issues, such as domestic violence, substance or alcohol abuse, or other serious mental health issues that interfere with raising the child

Is there a preference for full custody for mothers?

Most states used to award custody to mothers more often than to fathers. Now, almost every state has laws allowing both parents to get custody. As many fathers know, however, some judges still believe the mother should be the custodial parent. Some states are better than others in allowing either you or your spouse to have an equal chance of getting full custody.

If you're seeking sole custody, you should hire an experienced family lawyer. Custody is too important to handle by yourself.

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Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

About the Author

Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

Ronna L. DeLoe is a freelance writer and a published author who has written hundreds of legal articles. She does family … Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.