Defining Sole versus Joint Custody

By Jim Warren


One of our core practice areas at Warren Family Law involves representing divorcing spouses in child custody matters, whether establishing the initial custody arrangement or modifying the original agreement at a later date. We are often asked to define the terms “sole custody” and “joint custody.”

Most people think that sole custody means that one parent has physical custody 100 percent of the time, as well as 100 percent of the decision-making power in the parenting arrangement. They also tend to believe the opposite is true of joint custody, that physical custody and decision-making have some degree of sharing.

The fact is, these terms aren’t defined by North Carolina family statute, nor by case law in the family courts across the Old North State. These terms derive their power from either the negotiations between the divorcing (or divorced) spouses, or through a court order from a family court judge.

What’s really recognized in our state are the concepts of physical and legal custody. Physical custody means what it appears to say in name; that is, the parent with whom the child resides. With physical custody, you the parent, feed and clothe the child, as well as provide shelter. Legal custody, on the other hand, involves the decision-making regarding the health and welfare of the child with regard to things like medical care, education, and religious upbringing.

Based on multiple circumstances, judges have lots of leeway to award varying degrees of physical and legal custody. If one of the parents is deemed unfit, the other parent may have 100 percent physical and legal custody and decide whether the other parent can even have supervised visits with the child. If both parents are equally capable of providing for the child’s physical needs and sharing the decision-making, judges are happy to allow equal co-parenting, as long as the arrangements make sense for the child’s health and welfare. So, even if both parents are making a great effort, the judge may still say that one parent has physical custody during the week and the other on the weekends, so as not to upset the child’s daily school routine.

The bottom line with regard to sole versus joint custody is that these are malleable terms meant to be meted out in negotiations between spouses and their respective counsel, or ordered by a judge after input from both spouses and their counsel.

If you need legal representation to determine the custody of your children, call us at Warren Family law today. For nearly 40 years, we have worked hard to get our clients the results they desire while assisting the court in determining the best interests of the children.