What Are My Responsibilities if My Wife Has Sole Custody?

By Mary Jane Freeman

Father carrying sleeping son

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At the conclusion of a divorce action, the terms of custody and child support are usually outlined in the final divorce decree. If your wife was granted sole custody, she was assigned specific rights and responsibilities with respect to your children and the care they are to receive. It is important to understand the new role your former spouse will play in your child's life and what is expected of you as the noncustodial parent.

Custody Basics

Custody is determined by state law. Although these laws vary from state to state, all states establish custody and visitation agreements based on the "best interests of the child." This standard takes a variety of factors into account, including the relationship between the child and parents, ability of parents to provide a suitable home for the child, and mental and physical health of both parents. Custody falls into two categories: physical and legal. Physical custody determines which parent the child lives with while legal custody represents the right of a parent to make decisions about the child's upbringing, such as schooling, religion and health care.

Sole Custody & Visitation

When legal and physical custody are awarded to parents, it's common for either or both forms of custody to be shared. Typically, courts award parents joint legal custody, through which the parents share decision-making responsibilities, and one parent sole physical custody, when the child lives with one parent full time. Visitation rights, also known as parenting time, are usually granted to the noncustodial parent when one parent is given sole physical custody. Although it is possible for a court to award sole legal and physical custody to one parent, it's rare; courts usually reserve sole custody for situations in which one parent is deemed unfit. If your former spouse was granted this form of custody, your visitation rights as the noncustodial parent usually will be outlined in the divorce decree.

Parenting Plan

A parenting plan is a custody agreement between you and your child's custodial parent that explains your parental responsibilities during visitation. Parenting plans are detailed and routinely outline the following: goals for children; regular, vacation and holiday visitation schedules; how child exchanges will be handled, including designated pick-up and drop-off locations and responsibility for transportation costs; procedure for changing visitation dates and making up missed parenting time; responsibility for child's clothing and medication; participation in child's extracurricular activities; how and when parents will share information about the child; and how disputes will be resolved. Basically, the noncustodial parent is charged with providing a proper home for the child during visitation.

Child Support

As your child's noncustodial parent, the court likely ordered you to pay child support in an amount set by state law. If you fall behind in your payments, the state's child support enforcement office may begin collection activity against you, using such tactics as wage garnishment, seizure of income tax refunds, property liens and suspension of driver's, professional and occupational licenses. If your former spouse blocks visitation with your child, you cannot use this as an excuse to stop paying; visitation and child support are considered separate issues under the law. Only the court can deny or restrict your visitation rights and this is only done when the court determines a parent is unfit.


If there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the original custody order was issued, either parent may return to the court that issued the order and ask for a modification. Circumstances that may warrant modification include a custodial parent's desire to relocate, recent job loss or medical disability, or unfit behavior on the part of either parent that places the child at risk, such as drug use or alcohol abuse. The court is likely to approve the modification if a change in custody or visitation would be in the best interests of the child.