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Child Custody: Sole vs. Joint Custody

4 min read
Mar 28, 2023

When couples make the difficult decision to split up or file for divorce, several arrangements typically need to be made. For example, spouses may need to decide how to divide their assets and debts, how alimony will be distributed, and if they’re filing for an at-fault or no-fault divorce. And if children are involved, there may be added considerations.

One of the most important things divorcing parents may need to think through is determining the child custody arrangements. Couples who fully understand their options when it comes to child custody can make a more informed decision.

Types of child custody

Child custody arrangements will look different for everyone, as they’re intended to meet the specific needs of the family involved.

The first thing parents may need to understand is the difference between legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s authority to make important decisions concerning their child’s upbringing, such as health care, schooling, and religious rearing. Physical custody refers to the rights and responsibilities of a parent to house and take care of a child on a daily basis.1

In addition to legal and physical custody, child custody is also defined by joint or sole custody.

What is joint custody?

Joint custody is when two parents share the rights concerning their child. When parents have joint custody, they share legal custody, physical custody, or both.

Joint legal custody

If parents are awarded joint legal custody, both typically participate in the major decision-making regarding their children. Joint legal custody is granted in most cases — unless it’s not in the best interest of the child.2 Some instances in which joint legal custody may not be granted include:

  • The parents are unable to make major decisions together.
  • One parent is deemed unfit to make decisions.
  • One parent is incapable of making decisions.

Joint physical custody

Joint physical custody means the child will spend substantial time living with both parents. However, joint physical custody doesn’t necessarily mean a child’s time will be split 50-50, as moving back and forth may be detrimental to the child.

With joint physical custody, parents will have close to equal time with the child, or the child will predominantly live with what’s known as the “custodial parent,” while also sharing time with the noncustodial parent.1

What is sole custody?

Unlike joint custody, in which everything is shared, sole custody grants one parent the rights of the child. Having sole custody means one parent will have both the legal and physical custody of the child, or they’ll have one or the other.

Sole legal custody

Sole legal custody means only one parent has the right to make life decisions for the child. The other parent doesn’t have to be consulted before decisions concerning the child's welfare are made.

Sole physical custody

Sole physical custody means the child will live with one parent, while the other parent may be given visitation rights — unless it’s not in the child’s best interest to do so. Cases in which sole custody may be granted include:1

  • One parent lives too far away for the child to safely and comfortably split their time on a regular basis.
  • One parent is unable to provide a safe living environment for the child.

Who decides on child custody?

If parents can get along enough to agree on how they want child custody to be arranged, and the court deems it fair and in the best interest of the child, then those arrangements will most likely be granted in a court order. But if parents can’t reach an agreement, the court will step in and make the final decision for them.

When deciding on child custody arrangements, some factors the court may take into consideration include:3

  • The relationship/bond between the child and parent
  • Each parent’s mental and physical capacity to take care of the child
  • The child’s preference (if the child is mature enough to make a sound decision)
  • Each parent’s preference
  • Each parent’s financial ability to provide the child with necessities
  • The quality of life the child has in their current situation
  • The child’s age and individual needs

Parents who are finding it difficult to handle arrangements related to divorce, such as child custody and child support, may want to consult with a lawyer — like a civil or divorce attorney — to make the process more manageable.

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This article is intended to provide general information about insurance. It does not describe any Metropolitan Life Insurance company product or feature.

1 “The Different Types of Child Custody” Nolo, 2023

2 “Joint Child Custody: Do the Advantages Outweigh the Disadvantages?” Nolo, 2023

3 “Understanding Child Custody” Nolo, 2023