How to Get Sole Custody of Your Kids

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Are you ready to increase the odds that you'll get sole custody of your children? Start by learning what the terminology means, and then apply these tips.

Understand Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody

When it comes to child custody, first you have to understand the difference between legal and physical custody. Legal custody refers to having the legal authority to make decisions for the child, whereas physical custody refers to how much time a child spends living with each parent. Depending on the circumstances involved in a child custody case, and the court's decision based to determine the best interests of the child, parents can either be awarded "sole legal custody" or "sole physical custody," or "joint legal custody" or "joint physical custody."

When a parent has sole legal custody of a child, it means they hold the legal rights to all decision-making for that child, whereas those decisions may be shared if the arrangement is joint legal custody. If a parent has sole physical custody, the child lives with that parent, known as the "custodial parent," the majority of the time (more than 50%), and visitation arrangements are made with the "non-custodial parent." Joint physical custody, in most cases, means that the child splits their time evenly between both parents.

The term "sole custody" is often interchangeable with "sole physical custody" and is always associated with the custodial parent. Essentially, when the court grants sole custody, legal and physical custody is awarded to the parent they believe will suit the best interests of the child. Joint custody, on the other hand, can refer to legal custody, physical custody, or both. In other words, parents who share joint custody may only share joint legal custody but not joint physical custody, meaning that they equally share the responsibility for making major legal decisions on behalf of the child, but the child still lives with just one parent the majority of the time. Since technically it's possible for parents to share legal custody but not physical custody, it's important to understand the distinction.

Sole custody is also sometimes called "full custody." In many child custody cases, sole or full custody may be the goal for one or both parents, especially when there is an inability to effectively co-parent due to factors such as not getting along, living far apart, or if one parent is deemed unfit to care for the child. In such cases, sole custody is awarded to the custodial parent while the other parent is granted visitation rights as determined by the court—unless such action does not serve the best interests of the child.

Factors Considered

Many factors go into determining child custody. Some of them are absolutely critical, such as the child's best interests in terms of safety and stability, while others may seem superficial. Parents who wish to win sole custody should consider the full list of factors that may be considered during a child custody proceeding, including the following:

  • The Best Interests of the Child - The major factor a court uses to determine who will win sole custody is the best interests of the child. A parent looking to win sole custody should be prepared with a clear reason why joint custody will not serve the child's best interests.
  • Courtroom Etiquette: Parents who want to win sole custody should exercise proper courtroom etiquette during a custody hearing. One example of courtroom etiquette is avoiding interruptions and angry outbursts.
  • Documentation - Parents who want to win sole custody should bring all documents pertaining to custody matters to court.
  • Courtroom Dress - Parents who want to win sole custody should dress appropriately for court including dark suits and dress shoes.


There are a few obstacles involved with parents winning sole custody including:

  • Many—but not all—family courts are reluctant to grant sole custody to one parent unless there are extenuating circumstances. These may include evidence of ongoing drug and/or alcohol abuse or domestic violence in the home
  • If a parent wins sole custody, the child's other parent will probably still be granted generous visitation rights

For more information about how to win full custody, speak with a qualified attorney in your state or refer to more references about strategies to help win sole custody.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Determining the Best Interests of the Child. March 2016. 

  2. California Courts. Basics of Custody & Visitation Orders. 2020.

  3. Virginia Legal Aid Society. How to Take a Child Custody or Visitation Case to Court. July 10, 2018.

  4. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights. December 2016.

By Debrina Washington
Debrina Washington is a New York-based family law attorney and writer, who runs her own virtual practice to assist single parents with legal issues.