The most popular variety of custody arrangement after a divorce is joint custody – where co-parents share child-raising responsibilities, and the child splits their time between both parents’ homes. This is because children tend to do best with both parents involved in their lives, even if those parents divorce.

This was not the case in the past. It used to be that, particularly if the children in question were young, mothers would automatically get custody after a divorce. Particularly if you have a difficult relationship with your ex-spouse, you may wonder if getting sole custody of your children is an option.

What is sole custody?

There are two different components to child custody: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the child lives. Legal custody refers to who gets to make important decisions on behalf of the child, such as education, medical care and religious upbringing.

There are different types of sole custody scenarios. One parent may have both physical and legal custody while the other parent has visitation rights. This means that only one parent makes the decisions surrounding their child’s upbringing, and the child lives with that parent full-time. The other parent may be allowed to visit with their child at prearranged times – but will have no real say in how their child is raised.

However, it’s worth noting that it is also possible for a court to grant sole physical custody to one parent and maintain joint legal custody between both parents – and vice versa.

When is sole custody granted?

In general, family law courts will want to keep both parents involved in their child’s life if this is in the best interest of the child. Therefore, sole custody orders are fairly uncommon. Some factors that can sway a court to grant sole custody include:

  • One parent has a history of domestic violence
  • One parent is incarcerated
  • One parent suffers from alcohol or substance addiction
  • The parents live far away from each other – e.g., in separate states
  • One parent always been the primary caregiver of the child

Why is sole custody so rare?

The family court will do everything it can to act in the best interest of the child. In the majority of situations, co-parenting – i.e., joint custody – is the most beneficial situation to the child. However, the court has ample discretion to grant sole custody. This decision depends largely on the nuances of each family’s unique situation.