What Does Permanent Custody Mean?

By Ciele Edwards

Close-up of divorce decree document and gavel

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One of the biggest issues couples with children face during a divorce is who gets custody of the children. Many states have adopted gender-neutral custody laws. This negates the age-old “tender years” doctrine, which dictated that the mother is generally the party best suited to provide permanent care for young children. Because gender is no longer a factor in most custody disputes, courts must examine other aspects of each parent's life when settling custody disagreements.

Permanent Custody

Permanent custody is the indefinite result of a custody hearing. Permanent custody differs from temporary custody in that an individual with temporary custody only has custody of the child until the court reaches a permanent decision regarding which parent is best suited to provide the bulk of the child's care. Any custody arrangement indefinitely approved by a court falls under the category of “permanent” custody. Permanent custody differs from permanent guardianship in that an individual who has permanent guardianship of a child is not the child's natural parent. Permanent guardianship situations often occur when both parents die or are considered “unfit” by the court.

Sole Custody

Individuals sometimes confuse sole custody with permanent custody. Although sole custody is a form of permanent custody, a parent with permanent custody does not always possess the same freedoms that a parent with sole custody enjoys. A parent with sole custody has full physical and legal rights to the child. This parent can make major legal decisions for the child without consulting with the non-custodial parent. A parent with permanent custody, however, may still need to obtain the non-custodial parent's permission when making major legal decisions for the child, such as changing schools, obtaining a passport or changing the child's name.


Permanent custody isn't always permanent. Although a parent with permanent custody serves as the child's indefinite guardian, the non-custodial parent has the right to file a request with the court to alter the current custody arrangement should the family's circumstances change. For example, if the non-custodial parent suspects that the parent with permanent custody is abusing the child, he may file a request with the court for a new custody hearing.

Types of Custody

A judge has several options when determining permanent custody arrangements. He could grant one parent sole custody, or give both parents equal rights to the child through joint custody. Joint custody can be either physical or legal. If the judge orders joint legal custody, the child will reside primarily with one parent while the other has equal rights over all major decisions regarding the child. If a judge orders joint physical custody, the child must split her time equally between both parents. Any of these custody arrangements can constitute “permanent” custody.

Determining Custody

When assigning permanent custody, a judge examines various aspects of each parent's life to determine which parent's home and lifestyle are best suited for child rearing. According to the Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, judges consider such factors as the bond the child shares with each parent, which parent is most likely to help the child maintain a positive relationship with the other parent and, if the child is old enough, the child's wishes.