What is sole custody of a child?

Updated March 16, 2017

There are many issues associated with a divorce that are contentious. However, in many cases, nothing is as hotly contested in divorce proceedings as matters involving the custody of a child. There are three general types of custodial arrangements that exist when it comes to a child of divorce parents. These are joint custody, shared custody and sole custody. Sole custody, as the name suggests, exists when one of the parents is the only one with actual legal custody of the child.


The features of sole custody are twofold. First, the child will reside primarily but not necessarily exclusively in the home of the parent who has primary custody. Secondly, the parent with primary or sole custody will have the authority to make all major decisions pertaining to the life of the child. The non-custodial parent may or may not have visitation, which is now known as parenting time in many jurisdictions. The non-custodial parent will have no authority to participate in making decisions in the life of the child.

Not Favored by Law

Sole custody is not the favoured custodial arrangement when it comes to children of divorced parents. The preferred arrangement is joint custody with one of the parents being designated as the primary residential custodian of the child. The other parent is granted reasonable and regular visitation or parenting time. Both parents participate equally in making major decisions pertaining to the life of the child. These include issues like education, health care and so forth.


Sole custody typically is not agreed to by the parties of a divorce. Rather, it tends to be ordered by the court. Sole custody is ordered by a judge when it is determined that one parent is not in a position to be able to properly participate in sharing in decision-making responsibilities and other tasks in regard to the child. Circumstances may change at a future date that warrant revisiting the custodial arrangement.

Visitation or Parenting Time

Simply because a sole-custody arrangement is in place does not mean that the non-custodial parent will not have visitation or parenting time. Only if the non-custodial parent is deemed unfit or unsafe to be around the child will visitation or parenting time not occur. A sole-custody order can and will include visitation for the non-custodial parent that likely will include the child spending time with that parent in his or her home.


A grant of sole custody does not give the custodial parent free reign to do whatever he or she wants. For example, a parent with sole custody cannot move from the state and the jurisdiction of the court without the express, advance permission of that court. Such permission likely will not be forthcoming if the non-custodial parent is exercising his or her visitation or parenting-time rights and is otherwise involved with the child despite the sole-custody order.

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About the Author

Mike Broemmel began writing in 1982. He is an author/lecturer with two novels on the market internationally, "The Shadow Cast" and "The Miller Moth." Broemmel served on the staff of the White House Office of Media Relations. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and political science from Benedictine College and a Juris Doctorate from Washburn University. He also attended Brunel University, London.