IMPORTANT: This article gives general information. Keep in mind specific processes and laws can vary state by state and we are not providing legal advice. If you have further questions, we strongly suggest you contact a family-law attorney.
When Britney Spears suffered a widely-publicized mental breakdown in 2007, her ex-husband Kevin Federline gained sole custody of their sons—but sole custody and child support are two different legal issues. While Spears now has 30% unsupervised custodial rights, she paid child support and all other expenses even when she lost custody, because she has the financial means to do so.
Most of the time, mothers and fathers share custody of their children after they divorce, but it may be in the child’s best interests for one parent to have sole custody. If a parent has sole physical custody, the other parent still has the right to make decisions for the child. When a parent is granted sole legal custody, they’re the only person with the legal authority to make significant decisions on behalf of the child.
Reasons to File for Full Custody
Pursuing sole legal custody because you want total control or are angry at your ex isn’t a good reason to do so. In all 50 states, the best interest of the child standard is used to determine child custody. A non-custodial parent may be granted supervised visitation, or if the court decides extenuating circumstances warrant it, the parent may be forbidden from having any contact with their child. Here are 10 common reasons for seeking sole custody:
- Mental illness: Most people with mental-health disorders can care for their children, but if they refuse treatment, this may be grounds for the other parent to gain full custody of a child. Untreated or uncontrolled mental disorders may expose a child to irrational, unpredictable, and even dangerous behavior.
- Substance abuse: Drugs and alcohol can cause an altered mental state that significantly interferes with the ability to care for a child. The parent’s drug use may also pose a danger to the child’s well-being, such as a heightened risk of the parent driving under the influence.
- Abuse: If a parent emotionally or physically abuses their child, the judge will most likely make a custody decision based on the impact on the child’s well-being and whether the parent has taken proper steps to improve his or her behavior.
- Neglect: Failure to provide a child with necessary medical and dental care, supervision, food, clothing, shelter, or other safeguards to protect their well-being is considered neglect and may result in custody loss.
- Domestic violence: In cases of domestic violence, the decision to grant sole custody is based on whether the child witnessed the abuse, and more importantly, if the child can remain safe living with the parent accused of the assault.
- Abandonment: If one parent leaves and has failed to maintain contact or shows little interest in their child, this may result in the other parent gaining sole custody.
- Incarceration: Imprisonment is an obvious barrier to caring for a child and a strong reason for sole custody. The incarcerated parent may be granted visitation after their release from prison, depending on the circumstances.
- Relocation: When one parent moves out of state, it can create a divisive scenario since sole custody would require the child to live far away from one parent. While it may seem unfair, the judge may allow this if it’s clearly in the child’s best interest.
- Questionable paternity: The mother may dispute the parentage of the possible father and request sole custody. If the mother of the child won’t consent to a legal paternity test, the father can seek court intervention and petition the court to order genetic testing. Court-ordered paternity test results are used to determine a fair legal-custody arrangement along with other issues.
- Parental alienation: When a child rejects the other parent based solely on deliberate or vindictive actions on the part of one parent to drive a wedge in the relationship, this isn’t in the best interest of the child. In extreme cases, this can result in custody loss.
Can Sole Custody Be Reversed?
To regain custody of a child, the parent must prove to the court that whatever behavior caused them to lose custody is no longer a threat to the child’s well-being. Even if a parent feels they have good reasons to modify child custody, the burden is on them to prove this legally. Here are a few steps parents can take to help prove they’re putting their child’s best interests first:
- Successfully complete an in-patient rehab program
- Attend regular therapy sessions
- Take anger management or parenting classes
The bottom line is that a child’s well-being and best interests are the number one factor the judge considers when granting sole custody.
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