How to get full custody of a child

Make sure you understand all the factors before pursuing legal action.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

When a couple divorces, it’s generally considered to be in the best interests of any minor children for the kids to maintain a good relationship with both parents. This includes spending meaningful time with each to ensure their connection is preserved and nurtured. For this reason, shared custody arrangements are becoming more common.

However, in some cases, it may be in the children’s best interests to live under the full custody of only one parent. This article explains the different ways that a parent can go about getting full custody of a child and when it may be necessary.

What is full custody?

Full custody (also called sole custody) is the arrangement where, following divorce or separation, one parent is entirely responsible for raising and caring for their child. This can mean that they have full legal custody, full physical custody or both. 

Full legal custody means that one parent has the power to make all decisions regarding their child’s education, health and welfare. This includes questions such as: 

  • Which school(s) the child attends
  • What extracurricular activities the child participates in
  • Where the child receives medical treatment (including dental care)
  • What type of religious upbringing the child has and/or where they engage in religious practices 
  • Where and with whom the child spends time
  • If and where the parent (and child) move

Full physical custody

Full physical custody means that one parent’s home is the primary residence for the child and that they live together full time. It’s common for this arrangement to include unsupervised or supervised visits with the noncustodial parent. Supervised visits usually occur if the second parent was shown to be unable to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the child. 

In rare cases—such as where the child is considered to be at risk or where the noncustodial parent was incarcerated, for example—the court may block noncustodial parent visits from happening if they aren’t in the child’s best interests. 

A parent who has physical custody over their child is also responsible for: 

  • Providing food, water and shelter for their child
  • Handling the child’s education and any related matters and issues that arise
  • Covering any additional expenses

Child support is generally ordered if one parent has full physical custody, even if the noncustodial parent doesn’t see the child.

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Factors considered in custody cases

The first and primary standard for deciding matters of custody is the child’s best interests. This means that the child’s needs and the best way to address and support those needs takes priority over the parents’ preferences.

While the courts often operate under the assumption that spending time with both parents is in the child’s best interests, there are some circumstances in which they acknowledge that this may not be the case. The most obvious reason for requesting—and receiving—full custody is to protect a child from physical harm. 

It may be appropriate to request full custody if one parent has a history of any of the following: 

  • Abuse: A parent has assaulted or sexually abused the other parent or the child.
  • Neglect: A parent fails to provide medical care, supervision, food, clothing, shelter or other necessities to the child’s well being.
  • Substance abuse: Abusing drugs or alcohol could lead to an altered state where the parent is unable to provide for their child’s needs.
  • Mental illness: A child shouldn’t be left alone in the care of parent who is unstable and presents irrational and unpredictable behavior (for example, if a parent is suicidal).

Besides protecting your child or children from physical harm, there are other reasons for requesting sole custody: 

  • Abandonment: If a parent can’t or won’t take care of their child and fails to maintain contact with them, it may be a good idea to request full custody. This is to ensure that they can’t try to exercise their custodial rights later on, following their estrangement from the child.
  • Incarceration: If one parent is imprisoned, they won’t be able to care for the child or provide a home. In this case, it may be wise to seek full custody and then arrange for visits with the noncustodial parent once they’re released from prison, if appropriate.
  • Relocation: If one parent plans to move outside of the state or country, it may best serve the child to be under the sole custody of the remaining parent, even if there aren’t circumstances of abuse or harm.

Finally, a judge will usually also consider other factors when making their decision: 

  • The emotional ties between the child and other family members (courts are generally against separating siblings)
  • The interest of the parents in and attitude toward the child
  • The parents’ desirability of continuing an existing relationship with the child
  • The willingness and ability of each parent to encourage and support a close relationship between the child and the other parent

Pursuing full custody

It may be possible for some parents to arrive at a custody agreement on their own terms, in which case one parent might be willing to grant the other full custody. 

If you can’t agree about custody, you’ll need to present a compelling case to the courts as to why you should have full custody of your child. Come prepared with a detailed parenting plan, including how you’ll take care of your child, why you think you should have full custody and your plan for your child’s future. 

Throughout the entire process, consider the best interests of your child. Since the courts often prefer to grant joint custody, you’ll need to prepare your arguments as to why joint custody would be inappropriate for, or even harmful to, your child’s well-being. (Again, this is usually in cases of physical, emotional or sexual abuse; mental instability; substance abuse or other obvious dangers.)

Bear in mind that it’s recommended to come organized when presenting these arguments, since appearing overly emotional or unprepared may lessen your chances of winning your case. 

How to get full custody of a child as a mother

Historically, the U.S. legal system operated under a more gender-oriented approach to divorce and family matters. The mother was considered to be the primary caregiver and, therefore, most of the time found the path to full custody much easier than the father did. Now, courts usually favor joint custody agreements in the name of the child’s best interests.

So if you’re a mother seeking full custody of your child, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, even if a parent doesn’t have custody of their child, they still have some parental rights. These may include the right to make decisions about the child’s life—including their education, health care and religion—and the right to spend time with their child. Because of this, understand if and how paternity has been established in your case: 

  • Fathers who have children within a marriage are generally (but not always) granted paternity rights automatically.
  • For children born outside of marriage, if the mother isn’t in a relationship with the father, she’ll usually be granted full legal custody. 
  • In some states, having the father’s name on the birth certificate doesn’t automatically grant paternity rights. Further, under certain state laws, without established paternity rights, mothers aren’t obliged to offer visits with the child to the father. 
  • In order to establish paternity outside of marriage, both mother and father must voluntarily sign an acknowledgement of paternity form.

Second, if you’re a mother going through a divorce or you’re unmarried and the father has established paternity, you’ll likely need to put in more work and possibly face a long trial in order to get full custody.

How to get full custody of a child as a father

Over the last decades, U.S. family law has shifted from near-automatic maternal custody to favoring joint custody between both parents. More and more, courts are encouraging mothers and fathers to play active roles in their children’s lives. 

However, even though gender is less of a determining factor of custody than it used to be, granting full custody to the father is still less common. Given this, fathers often have a higher standard to meet to prove it’s appropriate and in their child’s best interests that they retain full custody over them. 

Things to consider when pursuing full custody

The following are some important and often underestimated considerations to keep in mind when considering full custody.

  • Understand what full custody means. Before you engage in a potentially intense and expensive custody battle, be clear with yourself about what winning full custody would mean for your life. You’ll be responsible for every aspect of your child’s life, constantly. Examine why you’re pursuing full custody.
  • Don’t assume money makes it easier. A greater amount of financial stability or assets doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more fit as a sole custody parent and will be granted parental rights accordingly. The court is looking to divide marital assets fairly and determine the best living situation for the child, not punish socioeconomic differences. You need to prove that you’re a more engaged and better parent to your child overall to win full custody, regardless of your financial background.
  • Hire an attorney and keep your paperwork organized. Especially since the law varies from state to state, it’s a good idea to hire an attorney to help you navigate local custody procedures. Even with the best intentions, many parents may misunderstand the legal language and processes, or not even begin the process—one of the biggest mistakes parents who want full custody can make. It can be helpful to start talking to a lawyer early on—even well before the marriage ends, if you’re married—and collect a paper trail to use later on. 
  • Don’t alienate or talk bad about your co-parent. Speaking badly about your former spouse is likely to both negatively impact your case and weaken your family connections. Even if one parent has full custody, the courts look for both parents to play a role in their child’s life (except in harmful circumstances). As part of this, they expect both parents to encourage a free and loving relationship between the other parent and the child. Putting your own emotions aside, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the importance of the other parent’s place in your child’s life and prove you can best facilitate their continued connection.

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Schedule a free 15-min call with our team today.

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Get help with seeking full custody

Since child custody cases are usually complex, lengthy and high-stakes processes, you may get better results if you hire a family law attorney to support you throughout. An experienced attorney can help you correctly take care of everything you need to receive a child custody order, especially in cases that are highly contested or have numerous complicating factors. 

Your attorney can also advocate in court on your behalf and be a primary point of contact between you and your co-parent, particularly if they challenge your custody claims with their own legal help.

Attorneys at Marble are experienced in matters of family law and child custody. With an experienced team who has helped more than 20,000 clients across 17 states and a clear pricing structure, we aim to keep your custody case simple and straightforward, with your child’s best interests in mind.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

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