Understanding Child Custody: What Sole, Joint, Physical, and Legal Mean

As a parent, it’s unlikely that you ever planned to spend time away from your child aside from when they had to attend school or other activities. Relationships between parents sometimes don’t stand the test of time and work out the way they expected them to, and that’s when custodial arrangements have to be sorted out between parents, or the Court has to step in and decide what is in the best interest of the child. 

In our years of speaking with parents about child custody options, we’ve found that while they might have heard the terms “sole,” “joint,” “physical,” and “legal” used when describing different arrangements, many lack clarity as to the distinctions between each of these. If you find yourself in the same predicament, keep reading, as we’ll share what each of these concepts refers to.

What Sole and Joint Custody Are

Sole custody is an arrangement by which only one parent has rights, which some refer to as that parent having an exclusive right to or over them. In contrast, joint custody refers to parents sharing the responsibility to make decisions regarding their child. 

The description made above is very high level in the sense that it just essentially explains the difference between sole and joint. Generally, these terms are also accompanied by the “physical” and “legal” as in “sole physical” or “joint legal” custody, for example. These distinctions are critically important to what rights a parent has to make decisions regarding their child.

Making Sense of Different Custodial Arrangements

As for the different types of custody rights Judge can assign parents, the North Carolina Judicial Branch lists: 

  • Sole legal custody: As hinted at in the previous section, parents who retain sole custody can unilaterally make decisions regarding their kid’s health and wellbeing, religious upbringing, and schooling without having to first secure input from anyone else.
  • Joint legal custody: Parents with this type of custody arrangement in place must consult each other about major decisions regarding their child. Some of those decisions include ones regarding major medical procedures and where they will go to school.
  • Sole physical custody: The “physical” aspect of this custodial arrangement refers to who the parent lives with. In this case, its combination with the word “sole” refers to a child residing only with that one parent. One common misconception about sole physical custody is that people misunderstand this arrangement to mean that the other parent has no rights to the child. That’s not the case. The other parent may retain visitation rights with their son or daughter. 
  • Joint physical custody: This legal construct is perhaps the most broad in scope. A variety of custodial situations may fit into the mold of joint physical custody, such as a scenario where the child spends equal time residing with both parents or one where the child spends most of their time with one parent (i.e., weekdays) while spending more limited time with the other (i.e., weekends).

How Custody Arrangements Are Decided

One of the best approaches to sorting out custody is to do so through a voluntary, private agreement between you and your co-parent. Doing so allows you to avoid getting a judge involved in deciding what’s in the best interest of your child for you. A family law attorney in Raleigh will be able to assist you with custody negotiations with your ex if you’re uncomfortable doing so yourself. 

Should you and your child’s other parent be unable to reach an agreement about custody outside of court, including through mediation, the judge will review the case and enter an order based on what they decide is in “the best interests of the child.” In making that assessment, they might weigh: 

  • Each parent’s ability to adequately care for the child
  • The child’s age and development level
  • How well the child gets along with each respective parent
  • The living arrangement each parent keeps (including the safety of the surrounding neighborhood)
  • The wishes of the child (if they’re deemed mature enough to voice their opinion)
  • A parent’s physical or mental health
  • Their willingness to allow their child to have continual access to their other parent

Generally, the Court steers clear of awarding sole custody unless there are concerns about some of the factors above or:

  • A history of past physical or sexual abuse in the home (including domestic violence)
  • Either parent struggling with substance abuse (alcohol or drugs)

Getting Help in Obtaining or Retaining Custody of Your Child in NC

As parents, we like to think that nothing could keep us from raising our children. However, a relationship that’s gone sour or a situation whereby your life circumstances significantly change could put your ability to parent your son or daughter in the way you’d envisioned can certainly be challenged. 
At Biggs Law Firm, a big part of what we do here is handle family law cases, including helping single dads establish paternity so that they can petition for custody or advocating for parents who worry that they’re going to lose their kids in their divorce. Reach out to our firm for an initial consultation with a Raleigh child custody lawyer to discuss your children and the type of custodial arrangement you’re seeking.

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