The extent of a parent’s rights over a child depends on the type of child custody awarded to him/her by the courts, specifically:
- Sole physical custody
- Sole legal custody
- Joint physical and/or legal custody
- Split custody
Sole Physical Custody
When a parent is awarded sole physical custody, it implies that the child will live with that parent all the time. The other parent is likely to get visitation rights, but those are usually fairly limited. In real life, courts are reluctant to award sole physical custody because the courts believe that it is in the child’s best interest to experience the love and care of both parents.
Sole physical custody may be awarded in exceptional circumstances, particularly when one parent is unfit to care for the child – for example, if he/she is a criminal, or an addict who refuses to reform, or mentally unstable, or if it is proved that living with that parent poses a danger to the child’s safety. In all such cases, the courts may not award custody to such a parent and consequently award sole custody to the other parent.
Sometimes, the courts may award primary custody to a parent, which means that the child has to spend most of his/her time with that parent. Sometimes, primary custody is loosely referred to as sole custody.
When a parent is awarded sole legal custody, it implies that he/she has full authority to make significant decisions about the child’s future – for example, the parent can decide about the child’s education, upbringing, religion, medical care, and other important aspects of the child’s life.
Just as in the case of sole physical custody, sole legal custody is rarely awarded. The courts may award it when both parents cannot cooperate, when one parent is unfit to decide for the child, the parents live in different time zones, or if it is proved that one parent’s choices for the child will end up harming the child.
The disadvantage of sole legal custody is that it may dishearten the parent who cannot make decisions for the child and he/she may become hostile over time.
Joint Physical And/Or Legal Custody
In joint physical custody, the child gets to live with both parents, in turn, according to the terms of the parenting plan.
In joint legal custody, both parents have to cooperate and take all important decisions jointly on behalf of the child.
Split custody may be awarded by the courts when the parents have multiple children and circumstances dictate that it is in the best interests of the children to split them between the parents. For example, a child with special needs or mental health issues may need to be with the more understanding, more patient, and better caregiving parent. Similarly, if siblings don’t get along well with each other and keep fighting all the time, the courts may decide to split the children’s custody between the parents. Split custody may also be awarded in the case of a child who is old enough to make a choice regarding which parent he/she prefers to live with.
That said, split custody is not commonly awarded because the courts believe that children can be emotionally harmed when they grow up away from their siblings. When split custody is awarded, one parent may get sole physical and legal custody of the child who lives with him/her.