What are grounds for full custody of your children?

Sometimes, full custody is in a child’s best interest.

mother tossing child into the air in a field

What's Inside

What's Inside

Some parents agree from the outset of a divorce that they both should have a role in their child’s life. They write up a parenting plan and a divorce settlement agreement and are all set once a judge approves them.

In some instances, though, it’s in the child’s best interest for one parent to have full (or sole) custody. If you’re interested in seeking full custody, it’s important to understand what it means and the legal grounds for receiving sole custody. This way you can be more prepared for your day in court.

What is full custody?

Before we discuss full custody, it’s helpful to understand the two different types of custody:

  • Physical custody refers to where the child lives. 
  • Legal custody refers to the parent who’s responsible for making major decisions that affect the child’s upbringing, such as where they go to school, what religion they observe and any medical decisions that arise. 

Many times, parents who think they want “full custody” actually want to be designated the primary parent. That parent has the right to determine where the child lives.

Full custody, on the other hand, is the term some people use for what’s legally called “sole custody”. Both terms can mean three different things: 

  1. That the child of a divorced couple is legally allowed to live with only one of their parents. That parent has sole physical custody.
  2. That one parent is empowered to make all major life decisions when it comes to raising their child without consulting the other parent. This is sole legal custody. 
  3. That one parent has sole legal and physical custody.

Full custody differs from joint custody, when both parents share physical, legal or both types of custody. 

It’s also possible for one parent to receive sole physical custody and share legal custody with the other parent, and for parents to share physical custody while one parent has sole legal custody.

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Grounds for full custody

Today it’s more common for divorced couples to share custody of their children, because the courts believe it’s usually most beneficial for the child to have both parents involved in their life. Still, the following cases may be grounds for one parent winning sole physical and/or legal custody. 

Physical abuse

If a child has been physically abused by one parent, the other parent may seek full custody of the child (and any siblings). The judge’s decision depends on the proof. It’s possible for an abusive parent to receive joint or full custody if they can prove to a judge that they’re the safer parent or that it’s in their child’s best interest to split their time between both parents.

Domestic violence

Similar to physical abuse of a child, if one spouse has abused the other and this can be proved in court, a judge may decide that they aren’t fit to parent their child. In this case, the aggressor wouldn’t receive custody of the shared child.

If you’re a victim of domestic violence, in addition to a lawyer, consider speaking with a domestic violence counselor. They can help you file court papers and develop a safety plan. You can also connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1.800.799.SAFE (7233), texting “START” to 88788 or chatting at thehotline.org.


If one parent has a history of taking or hiding their shared child from the other parent, that’s called abduction, and it can be grounds for awarding the other parent full custody.

Additionally, if a spouse abducts a child after a shared custody agreement is reached, the abductor may lose their custody. Warning signs for potential child abduction include: 

  • A parent has threatened to abduct their child
  • A parent has a history of delusions or paranoia
  • A parent is suspected of abuse or violence against their child or anyone in their life
  • A parent is a diagnosed sociopath

If your co-parent displays any of these signs, you may want to speak with a lawyer about issuing an order of protection against them as a preventative measure. 

An order of protection is a legal document that aims to protect someone by dictating what another individual can and can’t legally do. For example, an order of protection may outline that a parent must stay a certain number of feet away from a child, not contact the child or not show up at their ex’s place of work. The stipulations of the document are specific to the situation and individuals it concerns. 

False allegations

Presenting false evidence in a courtroom is illegal and considered perjury—and could result in jail time. Additionally, if your allegations are proved false during or after your trial, you could lose custody of your child. The consequences may be more dire if the lies concern allegations of illegal activity, such as abuse. 

If your spouse lies about you in court, you may want to work with a lawyer. 

It can be hard to contain your emotions in court—and even harder to do so when someone makes false claims that affect you and your child. But a judge may take any emotional reactions into account as they consider the validity of your spouse’s claims. A lawyer can help you remain calm and present your case in the best light. 

If you can prove that your spouse made false allegations about your behavior or any aspect of your marriage, your children or your life, it can be used against them and may give you a shot at receiving full custody of your child.

Child neglect

Child neglect means that the child’s basic needs aren’t being met by a parent or guardian. Needs may be emotional, mental or physical and can include education, health, food and housing. Child neglect can be grounds for the other parent being awarded sole custody.

Violation of orders

A violation of orders is when an ex-spouse goes against a custody order issued by a judge. For example, they keep their child at their house for longer than they were legally allowed to. Another example is if they demand more visitation than their custody order permits. 

If one person violates custody orders, the other spouse may file a violation petition. This could ultimately result in a judge imposing penalties in court. The severity of these penalties depends on the violation. Penalties can include: 

  • Court-appointed community service
  • Jail time
  • Restricting the child custody agreement or settlement, which may mean giving the other parent sole custody

Parental alienation

Parental alienation occurs when one parent purposely acts to harm their child’s relationship with their other parent. This may cause the child to develop a strong aversion to the other parent, possibly to the point where they don’t want to live with one parent, speak to them or see them. Depending on that child’s mental state and age, a judge will take their feelings into account when granting custody.

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What to keep in mind

A child’s well-being is of the utmost importance when deciding child custody terms. While joint custody of some type is often believed to most benefit a child, in some cases, full custody by one parent is the optimal decision. 

Many people pursuing full custody decide to work with a lawyer. An experienced divorce attorney can help you prove your case, as they know what kind of evidence may sway a judge in your favor and how to present it. Your lawyer can also help you navigate delay tactics that your spouse or their lawyer may use that could keep your child in an unsafe situation or away from you for longer than necessary. 

The bottom line: When a child’s safety is at risk, it can be helpful to consult a lawyer as soon as possible.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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