Rights of a Sole Custodial Parent

By Heather Frances J.D.

Mother and son playing with blocks

Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images

Divorcing parents often fight hardest over child custody, and you may ask the court for sole custody of your child. Child custody laws vary somewhat by state, but courts have flexibility to divide custody in a way that is in the best interests of your child. If this means you receive sole custody, you will have more rights than if you shared custody with your ex-spouse.

Legal Vs. Physical Custody

Custody of a child can be divided into legal or physical custody, and a court can award a combination of sole or joint physical custody and sole or joint legal custody in each case. Legal custody is the right to make important decisions about the child. Physical custody addresses which parent has day-to-day responsibilities to care for the child. Some states use terms like “parenting time” to refer to physical custody or visitation.

Sole Custody

In some states, “sole” custody means that the parent has full legal and physical custody. In other states, a court may split custody and one parent may have sole physical custody while legal custody is shared by both parents, or vice versa. Regardless of the custody arrangement, both parents usually have the right to access the child’s school and medical records.

Sole Legal Custody

A parent with sole legal custody makes the significant decisions about the child’s upbringing. This can include deciding where the child attends school, whether he attends church and even the child’s course of medical treatment. When one parent has sole legal custody, the other parent has no right to interfere with the custodial parent’s decisions.

Sole Physical Custody

If the court awards sole physical custody to one parent, the other parent usually receives some type of visitation rights unless the court determines that it is in the child’s best interest to avoid contact with the noncustodial parent -- as in the case of abuse. The custodial parent may have rights to receive child support from the noncustodial parent to help her support the child, though technically child support is the child’s right. Even if you have sole physical custody of your child, you cannot deny the other parent his visitation rights in violation of the court order. Typically, both parents have the right to have contact with the child when he is with the other parent.