What Is the Difference Between Filing for Full Custody and Abandonment?

By Cindy Chung

black and white view of a young girl (6-7) sitting in a corner covering her face with her hands

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Full custody and child abandonment are legal terms with many differences. A mother or father might file for full custody to establish sole parental rights while limiting the other parent's custody rights. In contrast, a parent or state agency may try to establish child abandonment as a way to limit or terminate the other parent's custody rights. A parent should understand the consequences of both terms before making any significant decisions.

Legal Significance of Full Custody

The legal significance of full custody depends on the types of custody established by each state's child custody laws. In many states, custody laws separate legal custody from physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make important long-term decisions that affect the child such as his education and religion, while physical custody has to do with the child's residence. If parents share joint custody, which includes legal and physical custody rights, neither parent has full custody of the child. If one parent has sole custody with both legal and physical custody, the other parent does not have custody rights. A parent can file for sole custody rights as part of a divorce case or another type of family court case. Whether the parent will receive sole custody or an order for full custody from a court often depends on the state's custody laws and the judge's decision based on those laws.

Consequences of Full Custody

The consequences of full custody depend on the custody rights established by state custody laws or given through a parent's court order. If a parent has full custody, which includes sole legal custody and sole physical custody, that parent generally has all rights related to raising the child. The parent may be able to make all decisions regarding the other parent's access, if any, to the child. A parent without custody rights, often known as the noncustodial parent, might have visitation rights or a parenting schedule to spend time with the child. In addition, a parent with full custody often has a right to request a court order for child support or request a support case through each state's child support enforcement agency.

Legal Significance of Child Abandonment

While a filing for child custody often confirms the custodial rights of a parent — generally the parent who takes care of the child — a court filing for child abandonment often seeks to terminate a non-custodial parent's rights. Every state sets its own definition of child abandonment. Some states identify abandonment as a form of child abuse. However, even if a custodial parent requests a termination of the other parent's rights, a state court cannot terminate those rights unless the judge agrees to the termination. Before terminating a parent's rights because of child abandonment, a judge must consider the best interests of the child and decide if the parent's actions meet the standard for involuntary termination set by state law.

Consequences of Child Abandonment

Child abandonment can result in legal consequences through criminal court as well as in family court. In many states, child neglect or abandonment serves as grounds for intervention from a social services agency or child welfare agency. Child abandonment can also lead to an involuntary and permanent termination of a parent's custodial rights through a state family court or domestic relations court. A termination of parental rights legally ends the parent-child relationship; in these cases, a parent often cannot regain custody rights. Some states also criminalize child abandonment through state criminal laws. The types of offenses charged for child abandonment generally depend on each state's laws and the extent of harm suffered by the child. A state might prosecute child abandonment as child endangerment, criminal neglect, family nonsupport and/or another type of criminal misdemeanor or felony.