The Ins and Outs of Sole Custody


When parents separate, agreeing on custody arrangements can be a stressful situation. In the eyes of the Massachusetts courts, a child’s best interest is always at the forefront of custody arrangements.

While it’s generally presumed that it’s in a child’s interest to maintain a relationship with both parents, this isn’t always the case. A parent who feels a safe environment cannot be provided by the other parent may request sole custody.

Types of Custody in Massachusetts

Joint custody is a legal arrangement whereby both parents share custody of a child or children following divorce or separation. Sole custody, on the other hand, refers to a situation where only one parent holds custody.

Massachusetts law recognizes two types of custody: legal and physical custody.

Joint legal custody is granted to the parents the majority of the time in divorce cases. Joint legal custody is where both parents have an obligation to consult and reach consensus on major issues, such as education, non-emergency medical, religious upbringing and major welfare of the minor child. Day to day decisions (such as what to have for dinner) are with the parent who has the child at that time. If a parent is granted sole legal custody, they are allowed to make decisions on behalf of the child pertaining to all aspects of the child’s life like religion, education, and medical choices without the need to consult with the other parent. Parents who do not have sole legal custody often have rights to view records and be kept informed about the well-being of the minor child. Sole physical custody applies to one co-parent acting as the primary residence for the child or children. Shared parenting is where there is close to equal parenting time.

Obtaining Sole Custody in Massachusetts

In order for a parent to be granted sole legal or physical custody, the Court must find that such sole custody is in the best interests of the minor child. This does not necessarily mean that the other parent is found unfit. It could be that a parent has medical or religious views that are found to interfere with the best interests of the child or they have an inability to effectively communicate and reach consensus with the other parent. There are multiple factors in determining whether or not joint custody is in the best interests of a child. In addition, sole physical custody may simply be a label applied to the parent who has the child the majority of the time. Most Courts and practitioners now refer to that as primary custody rather than sole physical custody.

Below are a few situations that can lead to a parent’s approval of sole custody in Massachusetts.

A history of physical abuse

A parent can awarded sole physical and legal custody if there is a history of domestic violence involving either the parents or physical abuse of a child.

A history of substance abuse

A parent struggling with substance abuse may be unable to provide a safe environment for a child or children. The inability to provide a safe environment for a child can result in that parent having limited, supervised or no contact with the child and can result in the sober or clean parent having sole legal and/or physical custody.

Neglected childcare responsibilities

A court has the ability to remove custody from a parent who purposefully neglects financial obligations or parenting responsibilities. In such cases, the other parent may be granted sole custody.

Parental mental health concerns

In the event a parent’s mental health prevents them from effectively parenting, they can be denied legal custody and have restricted or no contact with the minor child. The parent with mental health issues may later file a Complaint for Modification petitioning for a change if they receive treatment, are able to properly parent a child and the Court finds that it is in the best interests of the child for parenting time to resume and/or both parents to have joint legal custody of the child.

Custody arrangements are never easy. Whether you wish to pursue sole or joint custody, you need to know your rights as a parent. Contact our office today to talk to an experienced family law attorney.

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