Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody: What’s the Difference?

Relationships don’t always work out. That’s a fact of life. But when there are children involved, an already delicate and emotionally charged situation can quickly lead to a heated and contentious situation between parents.

If the parents of a child or children can’t come to an amicable agreement regarding child custody arrangements, this makes a ‘clean break’ impossible, and the courts will typically need to get involved. More often than not, a court case will result in an order that dictates the type of custody arrangement that the parents will need to observe—i.e., joint custody or sole custody—which itself will determine the rights and obligations of both parents.

What is child custody?

Most people consider child custody to be the right of a parent or parents to control a child’s life, i.e., by controlling where the child lives, who they contact, where they go to school, etc. While this is true to an extent, custody itself has many elements that cover both physical custody (i.e., where a child lives) and legal custody (i.e., the right to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing, such as where they go to school).

Not too long ago, a child’s primary carer, who would in most cases have been the mother, would have been granted sole custody. However, attitudes have changed in recent years, and the courts are reluctant to grant one parent sole custody of a child save for in the most extreme circumstances. This is because it is widely known that a child benefits greatly when both parents are involved in their upbringing.

Therefore, in most cases, a court will do all it can to come to some sort of workable joint custody arrangement with sparring parents.

What is joint custody?

Joint custody is where both parents have some form of legal custody over a child. In a joint custody arrangement, one parent will typically have physical custody (i.e., the child lives with one parent) but both parents will have joint legal custody.

This means that both parents will be involved in the child’s upbringing and work together to make amicable decisions on the things that are important, such as education, travel, health, and more.

In some joint custody arrangements, however, the court will grant both parents physical and legal custody. This means the child will spend equal time staying with mother and father at their respective houses. Whether a court grants physical custody solely with one parent or splits it between both depends entirely on the unique facts of each case.

What is sole custody?

In a sole custody arrangement, one parent is granted full and exclusive physical and legal custody over a child. This will essentially “freeze” the other parent out of any decision-making. This is obviously a very extreme situation, and it’s rare for a court to impose a sole custody order.

Generally speaking, sole custody arrangements are only ordered where one parent presents a risk or danger to the child; for example, where they are a drug user or have been convicted of child abuse or child sexual offenses.

In many sole custody arrangements, the courts will allow the non-custodial parent to have visitation with their child. Again, this depends on the circumstances – and, in some cases, visitation may be denied if the court believes it’s not in the best interest of the child. 

What is the mixed sole and joint custody?

Put it down. Pleasant young parents trying to convince their pre-teen son to stop playing on his phone while the boy being reluctant

In certain cases, a court might instead decide to order a combination of both sole and joint custody. This means that one parent will have sole physical custody of the child, but both parents will have joint legal custody. The court can also go the opposite way and grant one parent legal custody but grant both parents physical custody.

The key takeaway here is that the courts evaluate cases based on their individual circumstances; there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to a delicate subject like child custody. During a custody hearing, a judge must carefully consider all the different factors before deciding on the type of custody arrangement that will be ordered.

In every child custody case, the court will do what it believes is in the best interests of the child.

Can a custody arrangement be modified?

Unless the court has seen fit to totally expunge the rights of one parent and grant sole custody to the other, any custody agreement can be modified if either parent petitions the court and the court finds a reason to make alterations.

Indeed, this can even happen in a sole custody arrangement if the expunged parent can present a strong case. This, admittedly, is quite rare; sole custody is an extreme solution that’s only reached in the most pressing circumstances.

When considering potential modifications to an existing custody arrangement, the court will look at whether the material circumstances have changed in a significant way that warrants changing the custody arrangement. As always, this will only happen if it’s in the best interests of the child.

Joint custody vs. sole custody: In summary

Strictly speaking, there are only two types of custody arrangement—joint and sole.

However, there are many different options available to the courts, and they can impose a range of different restrictions on both joint and sole custody arrangements. This means that no one joint or sole custody arrangement will be the same as another; each one is ordered on the unique circumstances of a particular case.

When going through a divorce or separation, it’s important for both you and your ex-partner or ex-spouse to keep both custody options in mind and try your best to come to the most amicable agreement possible. This is in the best interests of your child; you should always try to reach an agreement where both parents have part-joint and part-legal custody.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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