In decades past, it was common for full custody (often called sole custody) to be awarded to mothers. Now, it is more common for fathers to get joint custody. This means that both parents are equally invested in raising the child, the child will generally spend time living with both parents in their separate homes, and both parents can make decisions about where the child goes to school, what elective medical procedures they might have, and which religion, if any, the child will be brought up with. Less commonly, fathers are awarded full custody. If you are a dad who would like to pursue full custody of your child, there are several criteria that must be met and steps you must take.
Reasons That You Might Get Full Custody
Most of the time, joint custody is awarded. This is because judges want to rule in the best interest of the child, and studies have shown time and time again that children do best in most cases when both parents are involved. With that being said, there are some reasons that you might decide to ask for (and that a judge might decide to grant you) full custody.
If the child’s mother is unfit to parent, you might have a case for sole custody. This can be due to a variety of factors. For example, she might be addicted to alcohol or drugs and unable or unwilling to get help. She might be severely mentally ill and unable to keep a child safe and cared for. Or she might be abusive or neglectful. In any of these cases, a judge might elect to award full custody to the father.
Full Custody vs. Joint Custody
There are a few different types of custody that you should be aware of. Full (or sole) legal custody means that you would be responsible for making all legal decisions for your child. This means that you would decide where they went to school and you would be the one attending teacher-parent meetings, IEP meetings, and so on. You would be able to bring up the child in your religion or with no religion. You would also be the one taking the child to the doctor or dentist and you would be entitled to look at those records. Shared legal custody or joint legal custody would mean that the mother of the child would have equal say in these matters.
Sole physical custody would mean that the child would live with you. The mother might have visitation rights, which would mean that the child would spend some time with his or her mom. If there are extenuating circumstances, she might be allowed only supervised visitation, which would mean that she could only see the child when a third party (such as a social worker or a child advocate) was present. If the mother has been abusive or it is otherwise determined by a judge that not having any contact with her would be in the best interest of your child, the mom might have no legal rights to see or interact with the child. Joint physical custody would mean that the mother has equal rights to have the child live with her; in most cases, the child would go back and forth between homes.
How to Request and Get Full Custody
Because getting full custody is relatively unusual, it is important that you have a legal advocate on your side. A private attorney is one option, but it is very expensive. A legal advocacy group like National Family Solutions is another option; this is usually a fraction of the cost of a private lawyer. Talking to a professional can give you a good idea of whether you have a legitimate case and whether it is worth pursuing sole custody.
If you are filing for divorce, you can file for full custody at the same time. If you are already divorced or if you weren’t married to begin with, you have a couple of different options. The first is to simply talk to the mother. It is possible that she might recognize that the child is better off living with you. She might not be interested in being a mother to the child. In this case, you can simply present your agreement to the court to have it approved and the matter will be settled.
If the mom is not interested in giving you full custody, you will need to take steps to prove to the court that she is an unfit mother. Document every instance of child endangerment, abuse, neglect, or drug use as it comes up. You can call the police if a crime has been committed so there is an official record. Keep doctors’ notes, notes from the school, and other proof that your child is not being cared for properly while in the care of his or her mother.
When you make your claim in court, you will need to have all of this proof on hand. A judge is not going to be able to give you full custody without a good reason that the mother is unfit. If you have been the primary caregiver up to this point, be sure to have proof of that ready as well.
Being a full-time single father is a difficult endeavor, but sometimes it is in the best interest of the child for the mother not to be involved or to be minimally involved. Look for a support group of single dads, and try to get support from your family or within the community. Just as single mothers are advised to look for male role models for their child, it will be important for you to look for female role models. Be sure to comply with whatever visitation a judge has allowed the mother; if you feel she is a danger to the child, work within the court system to keep your child safe. Finally, contact National Family Solutions if you need help with your case.