Shared Custody vs. Sole Custody: Which is Right for Your Family?


Divorcing parents must deal with the emotionally challenging question of who the children will live with after the split. Each family's situation is different, so there is no single best answer. In general, sharing custody of children is a preferred choice. Sharing helps kids keep strong ties with both parents, which is good for their wholesome upbringing. However, in some situations, it is better for the sake of children to live with only one parent.

An experienced child custody lawyer can guide parents through the advantages and limitations of each choice and help them pick the best option for their family.

What Is Joint Custody and Sole Custody?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of child custody arrangements: who gets to make decisions for the child (legal custody) and where the child lives (physical custody). Within these two categories, the custody can be either sole or joint.

Joint legal custody means both parents have the equal right to make important decisions in their child's life regarding their education, health care, religion, and so on. Joint physical custody means the child spends significant time living with both parents in order to have a balanced and meaningful relationship with each. A joint custody arrangement does not always mean that the time spent with each parent is split 50/50, but it is distributed in a way that supports the child's best interests and accommodates each parent's situation.

In the case of sole legal custody, only one parent has the authority to make the critical decisions about their child's upbringing and welfare. This might be granted if one parent is deemed unfit or if it is considered appropriate for children for other reasons. 

In case of sole physical custody, your child will live only with you and you alone will be responsible for their day-to-day care. The other parent (non-custodial parent) might have visitation rights, allowing them to spend time with the child, but the primary living arrangement is with you (the custodial parent). Additionally, if you want to understand interim custody orders, you can visit our blog page discussing What are Interim Custody Orders?

Photo of a Lonely Child

Which Custody Arrangement Is Best for Your Family?

To weigh the pros and cons of sole custody and joint custody agreement, you should look at your specific circumstances first. Consider the following factors:

Your child’s needs

Young kids benefit from as little disruption as possible. If one parent remains in the family home or in the same neighborhood, this could sway the decision toward that parent having primary physical custody to maintain the child's school and social circles. Think about who has been the primary caregiver or has closer bonds with the child. Keep in mind that Pennsylvania courts consider which parent is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and the other parent. If you are interested in learning more about emergency custody orders, you can read our blog page titled What Is an Emergency Custody Order?

Your personal situation

Is one parent's future living condition more conducive to raising a child? For example, proximity to schools and the safety of the neighborhood are factors the child custody laws would consider. If you have a flexible job or more opportunities for a work-from-home situation, you might be better positioned to provide the day-to-day care required. This is particularly true when your kids are in preschool, elementary, or middle school. Child support is another factor to consider while making custody decisions.

Your co-parenting dynamics

Joint legal custody only works well when both parents are able to maintain strong communication about the decisions that need to be made regarding their children. If you are not on good terms with each other, have a lot of animosity between you, and cannot see eye to eye on most matters, the court may lean towards granting one parent sole legal custody to make decisions unilaterally.

If both parents are equally capable and willing to support each other's relationship with the child, joint legal and physical custody is the best option. However, if there is a history of conflict, the court may determine that a sole custody arrangement with visitation rights is more appropriate.

When Is it Better for One Parent to Have Sole Custody?

There are times when children benefit from living with just one parent. A parent may be granted sole custody where:

  • The child's safety is at risk due to one parent’s substance abuse, a history of domestic violence, untreated mental health conditions, or neglectful behavior.
  • There is one parent who has been absent from the child's life or has voluntarily relinquished their parental responsibilities.
  • The child has special needs that are best managed in one home.
  • There is one parent who has consistently demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to cooperate with the other parent.
  • The family homes are too far apart to allow the child to live with both parents.
  • One parent is in a far better position to meet the child’s physical, emotional, educational, or special needs.

In cases where there are older children (pre-teens and teenagers), if they express a strong preference to live with one parent – and their reasons are legitimate – the court may consider this preference in its decision-making process.

Choosing sole custody in these instances becomes necessary to provide the much-needed stability and safety a child needs. Still, the parent who does not have custody might be allowed visitation times, unless it is proved that they pose a direct threat to their kid’s safety or expose them to harmful environments. 

We Can Protect Your Child’s Best Interests in Custody Decisions

The choice between joint or sole custody should always reflect what is best for your child and how your family functions. Focusing too much on terms like “full custody” can distract from the most important issue: your child's welfare and their bonds with other family members. Depending on your needs and goals as a parent, our child custody attorneys at Very Law can help you negotiate a custody arrangement so that it:

  • Allows quality time for the child with both responsible, affectionate parents
  • Creates a predictable schedule and easy transitions for your child
  • Encourages your child to grow up to be as resilient and well-adjusted as they deserve to be

We can help you find a middle ground with joint physical and legal custody. However, in case you are seeking sole custody or fighting for joint custody rights, our dedicated lawyers will use the full force of law to protect your rights and strongly represent you during negotiations or in the courtroom. Contact us online or call at 412-430-0131 to schedule a free consultation with our Pennsylvania family law attorney today.

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