Sole custody vs full custody vs joint custody: what’s the difference?

Make sure you understand your options, so you can make the best choice for your family.

woman at her computer with a child draped over her back

What's Inside

What's Inside

When a couple who share a child decide to terminate their marriage, determining the involvement of each parent in your child’s life is no simple task, since that decision will impact your family forever. Depending on your circumstances, you’ll need to decide how much time (if any) your child will spend with each parent and how to share responsibility for raising them (if at all). 

Every child custody arrangement differs to accommodate each family’s circumstances. Learning about the different types of arrangements will help you better navigate this sometimes emotional and difficult process and narrow down what’s best for you. In this article, we’ll discuss sole custody versus full custody versus joint custody, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The different types of child custody

There are two main types of custody: legal and physical. These determine which parent makes decisions regarding the child and where the child lives. Two other terms—sole custody and joint custody—determine whether one or both parents have that custody.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

The right to be involved in important decision-making about the child’s well-being and future is known as legal custody. Parents with legal custody are responsible for decisions regarding areas of the child’s life such as: 

  • School or child care
  • Religious upbringing, activities or institution
  • Psychiatric, psychological or other mental health needs
  • Medical care and dental needs (except in emergencies)
  • Sports, summer camps, vacations or extracurricular activities
  • Travel 
  • Residence 

Parents who have legal custody also have the right to access their child’s educational records, health records and other records.

Legal custody can be shared between both parents or given only to one parent. 

Even when shared (“joint”), parents may create decision-making systems that don’t follow an exact 50-50 split.

For example, they may decide that each parent will be responsible for decisions only when the child is physically present with them. Or each parent may be responsible for decision-making within different areas; for example, one parent may decide about education, while the other parent is responsible for religious upbringing.

In any joint legal custody arrangement, parents must follow the terms of their custody agreement. Making decisions outside the scope of their authority—whether they go behind the other parent’s back, decide within an area that isn’t their own or something else—risks being in contempt of the court and has serious consequences, including possible custody changes.

On the other hand, parents with sole legal custody have the exclusive right to shape their child’s life. They don’t need to communicate with or receive permission from the other parent in order to make decisions on behalf of their child. Sole legal custody usually isn’t preferred by the courts, unless it’s determined that sharing legal custody would be unsafe for the child.

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Physical custody

The physical custody arrangement determines where the child will live and how parenting time is divided between the parents. As a result, physical custody also determines how much responsibility each parent has to provide for their child’s basic needs (food, water, shelter, education, medical care, etc.) and cover their daily expenses. 

U.S. family courts tend to grant joint physical custody wherever appropriate and possible, on the basis that it’s in the child’s best interests to maintain a close relationship with each parent. Physical parenting time also allows the parent to influence their child’s future and offer support as they grow.

In some rare cases—such as when a parent is considered to be emotionally or physically harmful (such as if they have a history of abuse, neglect or domestic violence)—to protect the child, one parent may be granted no physical custody rights. 

Generally, the parent who’s currently present with the child also has the right to make emergency decisions on their behalf, no matter the legal custody arrangements. However, depending on those arrangements, the parent needs to communicate what happened with the other parent as soon as they’re reasonably able to. 

Sole custody

Sole custody refers to situations in which only one parent has responsibility for raising and/or making decisions for their child.

Although they often go hand in hand, sole custody isn’t always granted for both physical and legal custody. Sometimes, one parent has sole physical custody while both parents share legal custody. The opposite also occurs, when one parent has sole legal custody, while both parents share physical custody, but this type of arrangement is far less common. 

Parents who have sole custody of their child have more practical responsibility for addressing their child’s needs and covering necessary day-to-day expenses. Parents with some kind of sole custody arrangement usually (though not always) receive child support payments from the noncustodial parent to share the costs. 

Sole custody is primarily awarded in situations where one parent is unfit, unwilling or unable to provide for the child and/or have a relationship with them. Commonly, judges grant sole custody if a parent has a history of domestic violence, abuse of any kind (sexual, substance, physical, emotional) or neglect toward the child or the other parent.

Sole custody may also be awarded to a parent when the other parent is absent due to work or military duties or is incarcerated. 

Joint custody

Joint custody refers to any custody arrangement in which both parents share responsibility for the child. Like sole custody, parents can be awarded joint legal custody, joint physical custody or both. 

Sharing physical custody doesn’t mean that the child spends the same amount of time with each parent. There are many ways to set up a joint physical custody schedule. Typically, to minimize the impact of the changes on the child, one parent is designated the primary guardian. The primary custodial parent may serve as the child’s primary residence or be the tiebreaker for major decisions when the parents can’t agree. 

Wherever appropriate and feasible, courts tend to grant joint legal custody. Over the last decades, the U.S. has moved away from more gendered custody arrangements to give both parents more rights and involvement in their child’s life. That said, a nearly 50-50 equal time division isn’t the norm.

To make joint legal custody work best, parents need to be able to communicate well and make decisions together. Joint physical custody relies on favorable logistical circumstances such as the parents living close together to easily exchange the child. 

Is there a difference between sole and full custody?

“Sole custody” is the official legal term to describe arrangements where one parent is the primary caregiver and/or decision-maker for a child. The term “full custody” isn’t a legal one but is often used interchangeably with “sole custody” to refer to primary guardianship of a child. 

However, different people and parties may use the term “full custody” with various interpretations.

Some may describe full custody arrangements as those where one parent is the primary custodian and the other has limited but available visitation and/or decision-making rights. This is compared to sole custody, which may be used to mean cases where one parent has sole authority and physical guardianship of the child, and the other parent is completely blocked from decision-making and physical time together.

Ultimately, there is little difference between “sole” and “full” custody in most contexts.

Pros and cons of sole custody vs joint custody

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for custody arrangements. Not only does each child have individual needs, but family circumstances and history may make it more or less appropriate for both parents to be involved in their life. 

Parents and the courts consider the child’s best interests, as well as the feasibility, practicality and safety of the arrangements, when deciding between sole and joint custody options. 

Sole legal custody is often a suitable arrangement for parents who experience a lot of conflict and can’t work together well. It minimizes the amount of communication needed between them and therefore the possible tension in their and their child’s lives. 

Sole legal custody also makes decision-making easier and offers valuable consistency to the child, who doesn’t face possible confusion from different child-rearing beliefs. Finally, sole legal custody can directly protect a child from the dangers of an abusive, violent or neglectful parent, who may still have visitation rights without legal custody.

On the other hand, sole legal custody can be disheartening and challenging to the noncustodial parent if they’re invested in their child’s upbringing and well-being. It can further lead to feelings of resentment and possible conflict later on as one parent remains distant from their child’s care.

Conflict can also arise in the family if the child comes to view the noncustodial parent as less important due to the limited involvement in their life. 

Finally, it may be practically taxing on the custodial parent to be the single source of authority in their child’s life. A sole legal custodial parent doesn’t have the benefit of a partner with whom they could brainstorm ideas at any time. Instead, they can only decide at their discretion whether to consult with the other parent. 

Sole physical custody

One main benefit of sole physical custody is that the child has an established home base that may even be the same home they’ve been living in. That means there’s no shuttling of belongings between two homes (and fewer belongings “misplaced” or left behind). 

Sole physical custody also gives the child the opportunity to keep a routine and schedule more or less identical to the one they had before the divorce. In turn, both the parents and the child should have an easier time adjusting to the arrangement.

Finally, a stable routine makes allowing visitation with the other parent easier, and may even mean an increase in this time, if appropriate. (In order to do this, the parent with visitation rights needs to file a motion with the court, stating their reasons for seeking an increase in their visitation rights and providing any supporting evidence.)

On the down side, depending on the visitation schedule, the noncustodial parent may have only a small amount of time with their child, which could impact the depth of their relationship over time.

The noncustodial parent in sole physical custody arrangements may also develop feelings of resentment or consider the arrangement unfair. In cases where these feelings lead them to action, the parents may find themselves in an ongoing custody battle in court. 

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The more parents can work together and make decisions on behalf of their child, the more the child will ultimately benefit. A continued connection with both parents is especially important for navigating any sensitivities or feelings of loss following a divorce, and allows the child to feel love and belonging. 

A good relationship between the two parents is also an important reference for the child to learn about cooperation and working through conflicts, as well as for establishing healthy self-esteem.

Finally, joint legal custody can relieve the weight of parenting from any single parent, since each benefits from a partner in decision-making.

Conversely, joint legal custody isn’t appropriate for all parents. If decision-making tends to lead to conflict, it could affect the parents’ judgment and ability to make decisions in the child’s best interests.

Joint legal custody also comes with sacrifices. For example, if you’re changing jobs, you may need to consider positions that keep you close to your child in order to remain easily involved in important matters.

Joint physical custody

The biggest benefit of joint physical custody is that it ensures both parents have ongoing contact and involvement with their child, which has a positive impact on the child’s post-divorce adjustment. It also allows each parent to play a role in supporting and shaping their child’s future. 

Additionally, joint physical custody allows the parents to share the burden and expense of child-rearing responsibilities. If the relationship allows, they can turn to each other for support in navigating the child’s daily life. 

At the same time, depending on the child’s age, joint physical custody can be logistically challenging. The parents and child need to keep up with moving belongings between two households, and the frequent exchange itself may be taxing on the child. For older children with busy schedules, joint physical custody may be disruptive to their ability to maintain a routine.

Joint physical custody also means covering the expense of maintaining two homes, as well as any transportation costs associated with moving the child between them, especially if the parents live far apart. 

Factors considered when granting full custody

The primary standard for custody decisions is always the child’s best interests. That said, other factors go into a custody decision. The criteria for determining whether a parent will receive full custody differs from state to state, but typically, the following play a significant role: 

  • History and evidence of domestic violence, abuse or neglect
  • Each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s physical, emotional and medical needs
  • How the child will be affected by continuing or changing the current custody arrangement 
  • Each parent’s ability to provide a stable, loving environment
  • The child’s wishes (if appropriately old enough)
  • The level of adjustment and attachment between the child and their home, school and community
  • The living accommodations of each parent’s home
  • The mental and physical health of each parent and the child
  • The relationship between the child and each parent
  • The willingness of each parent to support and facilitate the child’s ongoing relationship with the other parent
  • The preference of each parent
  • The consistency and percentage of care each parent provides to the child 
  • The child’s age and temperament

Talk to a divorce attorney

It isn’t required to work with a divorce attorney while navigating child custody matters, but with so much at stake, it may be beneficial. Further, if you’re unable to communicate or cooperate with the other parent, or your case involves serious or complicating factors, you may need an attorney to help you successfully complete the process. 

Three other advantages to working with an experienced legal professional in your divorce proceedings are: 

  • Your attorney understands the relevant custody laws. With their knowledge of the local laws and the details of your case, your attorney can advise you on how best to move forward. For some people, going to court may not be the best solution. If you work with an attorney from the beginning, you’ll have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your case, and how best to proceed. 
  • Your attorney will best present your side of the story. It may be hard for you and the other parent to keep your emotions and strong opinions for your child’s future out of the technicalities of courtroom custody proceedings. It’s important to strike the balance between telling your story and presenting it in an accessible and appropriate way. A good divorce attorney can guide you on how best to do this.
  • Your attorney will focus on the details. Parents trying to negotiate custody arrangements are primarily focused on the big picture. Who gets the child when? Who decides about major areas of their life? However, they less commonly think about disputes on the small things, like the procedures if the parents can’t decide whether the child will go on a field trip. An attorney can help make a plan to reduce conflict in every aspect of your child’s upbringing as you move through negotiations.

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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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