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When you’re a parent, the aspect of a divorce or separation that you most want to get right is the custody aspect. Your children are your top priority, and you want to make sure that even though your marriage is ending, your children are still happy and taken care of and getting what they need.

But the language and details around custody issues can be confusing, so it’s important to understand what the custody options are, what they mean, and what you should be asking for in court. Take a look at what you need to know about joint custody vs. sole custody.

What Is Joint Custody?

The most common types of custody arrangements involve some type of joint custody:

  • Is when both parents have physical custody of the child. This can involve the child spending alternating weeks with each parent, or spending weekdays with one parent and weekends with the other, or any other type of arrangement that works for the family.
  • Does not necessarily mean that parents share parenting time exactly equally, just that both parents have some parenting time.
  • Is often confused with shared custody, but the term shared custody typically implies a parenting split that is as close to equal as possible, rather than simply giving both parents some custody.
  • Is common because most family courts attempt to ensure that children maintain a relationship with both parents as long as it’s in their best interests to do so.

Research indicates that children thrive best when they have two parents involved in their lives, even if those parents are no longer a couple. So as long as neither parent poses a threat to the child’s health and well-being and both parents demonstrate that they are willing and able to care for their child, it’s likely that both parents can be awarded some custody.

Sometimes, when a divorce is contentious and the parties involved are angry with each other, one parent may try to remove custody from the other parent completely. However, being angry with your ex isn’t a good enough reason to deny them custody. Even if your ex was a bad partner, that doesn’t mean that they are a bad parent or that your children won’t benefit from a relationship with them.

When you’re considering custody options, try to put your feelings about your ex out of the picture and focus only on what’s best for your children. Ideally, you should want your child’s other parent to be involved in their life, as long as they’re a fit parent who isn’t abusive and is capable of caring for your child. Working toward a fair joint custody arrangement is often the best choice for everyone involved.

What Is Sole Custody?

Sole custody usually means that one parent was given full responsibility for and custody of the child, while the other parent retained no rights to custody or visitation. Sole custody:

  • Is usually different from full custody, in that full custody often implies that one parent has the lion’s share of parenting time, but the other parent retained some rights to visitation, limited physical custody, or legal custody.
  • Has become much rarer than it used to be.
  • Is granted when one parent is unknown or has relinquished their parental rights or when one parent has a history of abuse or other types of unfitness.

Sole custody is not always a permanent status, even if you receive a permanent order of sole custody from the court. A parent who was considered unfit, but has taken steps to change their lifestyle and provide for their child, can petition the court to be considered for custody or visitation rights.

If the court agrees that the circumstances have changed and that the child will be safe in their care, they may grant that parent visitation or joint custody. It’s important for parents who have sole custody or who are asking for sole custody to understand that they still may be asked to share custody with their child’s other parent at some point in the future.

What Is Legal Custody?

You may have heard your lawyer make a distinction between legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to the right to make certain decisions about your child’s life, such as what religion they practice, what school they go to, or what medical treatment they receive. Physical custody, on the other hand, refers to who the child lives with.

Even when you have full or sole custody, you may share legal custody with your child’s other parent. This means that even though the child lives with you, your ex may have input on major decisions that you make about your child.

Parents who share joint custody often share legal custody as well, unless the court has a good reason not to allow both parents to contribute to these decisions. It’s often helpful for both parents to have legal custody even if one parent spends much less time with the child.

A parent who only spends weekends or summers with the child might still need legal custody rights in order to seek medical treatment for the child in the event of an emergency, for example, or to enroll the child in an activity like summer camp.

What Are Co-Parenting Plans?

In many states, courts use parenting plans as a way to define each parent’s rights and responsibilities in detail. Having an official document outlining which parent will have the child on which day helps reduce confusion and eliminate arguments.

When a joint custody arrangement is likely and both parents can generally agree on custody matters, parents can often create their own parenting plan to submit to the court for the judge to approve. This allows parents to create a plan that suits their particular family’s needs.

When parents cannot agree, the court can put a parenting plan in place instead, but it may not be as customized as either parent might prefer. It’s usually better for parents to work together to come up with a parenting plan they both can agree on.

Understanding custody options and arrangements can help you advocate for your parental rights and your child’s best interests in court. A legal resource group like Family Law Legal Group can help you research your options and prepare for your custody hearing.


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