If you are in the middle of a divorce or child custody battle, it’s important to understand sole legal custody. Sole legal custody is not an arrangement most courts prefer, but it becomes vitally important if you are exiting from an abusive relationship or dealing with an ex-spouse who is generally unavailable. 

Most of the time, parents just assume they are fighting for sole physical custody, which determines who spends the most time with the child. In truth, that’s not the only kind of child custody you need to consider. Legal custody must also be decided. 

What Is Sole Legal Custody?

If you are a parent with sole legal custody, it means you are the only person who has the legal authority to make major decisions such as schooling, medical treatment, religion, etc. for your child. 

You should keep in mind that sole legal custody is different from physical custody. With sole physical custody, your child will live at one location, and the other parent will more than likely have visitation rights.

However, having sole physical custody doesn’t mean you have the right to make major decisions regarding your child. In order for that to happen, you also need to have sole legal custody. 

What Are the Pros of Sole Legal Custody?

Like with almost everything else, there are pros and cons to sole legal custody. The pros of sole legal custody include, but aren’t limited to:

  1. Reduces conflict with the other parent because you have limited communication;
  2. Major decisions are easier because only one parent is legally responsible for those decisions;
  3. Provides more consistency and stability for your child;
  4. Keeps you from having to track down the other parent to make a major decision for your child;
  5. Keeps your child safe when one parent is not equipped to make decisions because of issues like instability, alcohol/drug abuse, and abuse;
  6. Eliminates any confusion for your child if you and the other parent don’t agree on child-rearing.

What Are the Cons of Sole Legal Custody?

The cons of having sole legal custody include, but aren’t limited to:

  1. The other parent may become discouraged or disheartened in not having a legal say in major decisions for their child;
  2. Could become a source of conflict and resentment between you and the child’s other parent;
  3. You may feel overwhelmed having to make all the major decisions for your child;
  4. Limits the involvement of one parent and could make your child view the other parent as not being important;
  5. May put a strain on your child because they only have one parent who can speak on their behalf;
  6. Could cause the parent without sole legal custody to withdraw from their child, which could damage your child’s mental health; 
  7. One parent’s decision may not be as good as both parents making major decisions for their child; 
  8. The end result could be that you are facing another court battle if the parent without sole legal custody decides they want sole legal custody or joint legal custody. 

What Are the Odds the Court Will Award Sole Legal Custody? 

If you decide to fight for sole legal custody, the court may order it if there is a history by the other parent of abuse, neglect, substance abuse, or some other activity that makes the other parent unfit.

If the jurisdiction you live in has a history of awarding joint legal custody, then the court more than likely will order joint legal custody. In many states, sole legal custody is fast becoming less common unless joint legal custody is not safe for your child. The default decision in most family courts is joint legal custody, which means both you and your child’s other parent will share in the decision-making process.

How Does Sole Legal Custody Affect Visitation?

Legal custody and visitation are two different things entirely, and one doesn’t affect the other. 

What Happens if I Make Decisions for my Child and I Don’t Have Sole Legal Custody?

If you have joint legal custody, you must consult and discuss any major decisions regarding your child with the other parent. If you fail to do so, you could risk being hauled into court and found in contempt. 

This is why it’s so essential to understand the difference between physical and legal custody. If you are the primary custodial parent, it doesn’t mean you are free to make any long-term decisions regarding your child without consulting the other parent – unless you also have sole legal custody. 


Sole legal custody may appear to be appealing because you do not have to consult anyone before making decisions for your child. But sole legal custody is not designed for a situation where you and the other parent simply have different ideas, philosophies, or have difficulty agreeing on what’s best for your child. 

Rather, sole custody is meant for situations where it is abundantly clear that one parent is more equipped or available to make good legal decisions for your child. If both parents are available to make good decisions for your child, then sole legal custody is not your best option, and the family courts are unlikely to grant your request. 

Being the physical custodial parent does not imply anything about how legal custody will be applied by the courts. Normally, if both parents want legal custody, the courts will award joint legal custody. Before pursuing sole legal custody, you must put aside any bitter feelings you may have against the other parent and think about what is best for your child.