It’s the question on almost every mother’s lips when the threat of divorce looms: What’s going to happen to the children?
Most states in the US have a preference to award joint custody wherever possible. But what if that’s not possible in your case?
Should you be seeking sole custody over joint custody? Will that be best for the children? What are the main drawbacks to that arrangement and how likely is a judge to award you sole custody anyway?
While the answers to these questions do vary from state to state, mothers can follow some general guidelines and it’s helpful to know what your options are during a separation or divorce.
Sole custody, full custody, and joint custody
First, let’s be clear on what the differences are between sole custody, full custody, and joint or “shared” custody.
The term “full custody” is usually used interchangeably with “sole custody” and includes both legal and physical custody for one parent. Either the mother or the father is responsible for both the day-to-day care of the child’s needs and for making decisions about upbringing (education, religion, medical care, etc.)
With sole custody, the non-custodial parent has little input into either aspect of the child’s life but does have visitation rights.
Joint or shared custody means that both parents are actively involved in the day-to-day care and the moral upbringing of their child.
From a physical custody standpoint, the child usually resides primarily with one parent and the parenting plan includes pre-set times when the child stays with the other parent (“overnights”).
Some states may impose minimum requirements for “overnight totals” if joint physical custody is to be awarded.
Generally speaking, the courts prefer joint custody arrangements if at all possible. Awarding sole physical custody and sole legal custody are the exceptions to the rule for most jurisdictions.
Even if one parent gets sole physical custody, the parents generally share legal custody.
When is it best to seek sole custody of a child?
In some cases, sole custody becomes a necessity for the safety of the child.
Because joint custody is generally considered to be in the best interests of the child, you will need to provide evidence that the child’s interests would be damaged by such an arrangement if you hope to petition the court for sole custody.
Most typically, the following reasons are argued when pursuing sole custody:
In cases of sexual abuse or other physical assault by one parent, the justification to award sole custody to the other parent is quite clear.
Drug or alcohol abuse from one parent may endanger the child and the parent may be deemed incapable of providing adequate care.
If the other parent has previously failed to provide necessary medical or dental care, proper supervision, food, clothing or shelter and there is a danger of the neglectful behavior recurring, you may be awarded sole custody.
A parent who is mentally unstable and exhibits irrational and unpredictable behavior may not be able to provide adequate care for a child.
Sometimes, a parent wants to relocate interstate or internationally. Sole custody then becomes necessary because of difficulties in making joint decisions (different time zones, communication problems, etc.)
The pros and cons of sole custody
Sole custody may be the best option if any of the above factors come into play, especially if the child needs protection from physical or psychological threats.
Other times, parents cannot work together due to deep relationship issues. Sole custody can then protect the child from the emotional trauma of seeing parents fighting. If one parent makes all of the key decisions, less contact with the other parent is necessary, lowering the likelihood of conflict.
Sometimes, too, parents have conflicting belief systems, which may confuse the child when it comes to decisions about how they live their life. Sole custody can ease the confusion.
The main drawbacks of sole custody are the following:
- If a parent is excluded from the upbringing of the child, it can create resentment and lead to other dangers for both the custodial parent and the child.
- States prefer joint custody as the input of both mother and father is generally seen as healthy for a child.
- When only one parent makes the decisions, there is no one to discuss ideas and solutions to problems with.
When does sole custody work best?
An important premise of sole custody is that it must be for the good of your child rather than a way to take revenge on your ex-spouse or as an “easy way out”.
It works best when both parents are in agreement that one parent is best positioned to make sound decisions in the best interests of the child – for whatever reason.
When sole custody is awarded against the wishes of one parent, which sometimes happens, it can create resentment and conflict which is generally not healthy for the child.
However, the clarity that comes from one parent making all decisions can be beneficial. If parents must consult before making decisions, it can slow the process down and create confusion for the child.
Do mothers typically receive full custody?
Unless you can show that the involvement of the other parent in decision-making could harm your child, you are unlikely to be awarded sole legal custody.
However, as a mother, if there is a case for sole custody, you are more likely to be awarded custody than the father. According to US statistics, only one in five sole custody cases is awarded to the father.