The Pros and Cons of Getting Sole Legal Custody of a Child

Whether you are planning a divorce or you are in the midst of fighting for child custody, it's important that you understand what it means to sue for sole legal custody. While this method of custody is not preferred by family courts, it is an essential consideration if you are leaving an abusive relationship or are dealing with a former spouse that is regularly unavailable.

When pursuing sole legal custody, most parents assume that they are only arguing about sole physical custody. In truth, that's not the only type of child custody that parents need to consider; legal custody must also be considered. A parent who has sole legal custody is also the only person who has the legal authority to make major decisions on behalf of the child. These types of decisions typically involve education, religion, and healthcare. Here is a closer look at this type of custody, including the pros and cons of the agreement.

A mother talking to her toddler son inside in a bedroom
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Pros and Cons of Sole Legal Custody

It's important to remember that sole legal custody is different from sole physical custody. With sole physical custody, the children reside at one location. Sometimes the non-custodial parent will still get visitation rights including sleepovers and vacations together. But other than that, one parent has physical custody of the child. The only time visitation does not occur is when it's unsafe for the children to be with the non-custodial parent because of issues like abuse, neglect, instability, or substance misuse.

But having sole physical custody does not give one parent the right to make all the decisions. For that to happen, they need to also have sole legal custody. This type of custody gives one parent the legal right to make all decisions regarding the children. Sometimes physical custody and sole legal custody are awarded together, but this is not always the case. A parent can have physical custody and not have sole legal custody or vice versa.

In many states, sole legal custody is becoming less common unless joint legal custody is deemed unsafe for the child. As a result, joint legal custody—which means parents share in the decision-making—is becoming the default decision in many family court systems. Here is an overview of some of the pros and cons of sole legal custody vs. joint legal custody.

Pros

  • Reduces conflict because communication is limited

  • Makes major decisions easier because only one parent is legally responsible

  • Creates more consistency and stability for the children

  • Reduces the need to track down an unavailable parent to make major decisions

  • Keeps children safe when one parent is ill-equipped to make decisions due to issues like substance use, instability, and abuse

  • Eliminates confusion for kids if parents differ greatly on child-rearing beliefs

Cons

  • Can be discouraging and disheartening for the parent that is not awarded sole legal custody

  • May become a source of resentment and conflict

  • Can be overwhelming for one parent to make all the major decisions alone

  • Limits the involvement of one parent and potentially causes children to view that parent as less important

  • May cause strain on the children because they only have one parent speaking on their behalf

  • May cause the parent without legal custody to withdraw further from the children

Advice for Parents Seeking Sole Legal Custody

Sole legal custody is often appealing to parents because of its simplicity—no one has to be consulted when a decision is made. But regardless of the appeal, sole legal custody is not meant for situations where parents simply have different child-rearing philosophies or difficulty collaborating.

Instead, sole legal custody is meant for situations where it is clear that one parent is more equipped or available to make sound legal decisions. For instance, when one parent travels outside the country a great deal, is moving out of state, or presents issues with substance use, child neglect, or domestic abuse, sole legal custody is a reasonable expectation.

If both parents are available and fit to make reasonable decisions, sole legal custody is not the best option and courts are unlikely to grant that request.

Situations where sole legal custody works well include:

  • When one parent is consistently absent from the children's lives and fails to maintain contact with them
  • When the parents live in different time zones, countries, or states and it is not practical for them to make decisions together, especially when those decisions require an immediate response
  • When one parent is unfit to make decisions for their children due to a history of abuse or neglect, substance use, or a debilitating illness or mental health issue

Before you attempt to get sole legal custody, ask yourself if you are pursuing this route because it is what is best for your children. If you are pursuing sole legal custody because you want total control or you don't want to have to deal with your ex ever again, it's important to realize that these are not good reasons.

Children benefit from having active relationships with both parents. They also benefit from seeing both parents collaborate and compromise with their interests in mind.

A Word From Verywell

Sole legal custody is a good option if there are issues that make one parent unfit or unavailable to make sound decisions for the kids. But pursuing sole legal custody without a sound reason will likely be denied in family court. Kids benefit tremendously from having different perspectives and approaches in their lives. If you can, focus on co-parenting effectively and your kids will benefit in the long run.

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