A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Sole Physical Custody

About Brette Sember, JD | Divorce.com

By Brette Sember, JD Updated Mar 12, 2024

About Omar Gastelum | Divorce.com

Reviewed by
Omar Gastelum, ESQ


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When you divorce with children or go through a custody case, there are some confusing terms you may encounter, including "sole physical custody" and "sole residential custody." These phrases are used to label different parenting arrangements.

Understanding what they mean before you start negotiating your custody plan is essential.

Read on to learn more.

Key Takeaways

  • In sole physical custody, a child lives mainly with one parent, who manages daily care. The other parent may have visitation rights but doesn't share custody equally.
  • Courts grant sole physical custody based on the child's best interests, often when the other parent is unfit due to abuse, absence, or loss of parental rights.
  • Non-custodial parents can have scheduled, reasonable, supervised, or virtual visitations to maintain a relationship with the child.
  • Benefits of sole physical custody include stability for the child and fewer exchanges. Challenges involve potentially reduced bonding with the non-custodial parent and increased responsibility for the custodial parent.
  • Custody arrangements can change if circumstances significantly shift, always focusing on the child's best interests.

What Is Sole Physical Custody?

Sole physical custody is a child custody arrangement in which a child primarily resides with one parent, referred to as the custodial parent. This parent is responsible for the day-to-day care and decisions concerning the child's living arrangements. Meanwhile, the other parent, known as the non-custodial parent, may have visitation rights but does not share equally in physical custody.

Sole Physical Custody vs Sole Legal Custody

Physical custody determines how a child spends time with their parents. If one parent is granted sole physical custody, the child resides and spends time exclusively with that parent. However, this does not negate the non-custodial parent's visitation rights, allowing them to have visits or in-person contact with the child.

Legal custody refers to decision-making authority. It determines how the parents will make decisions about important areas of the child's life, including health care, education, and welfare of the child.

mom son sole physical custody

Decisions could include whether the child will go to a private or public school, whether they will have an elective surgery, or what type of religious education they will have. Legal custody can be sole, which means one parent has complete decision-making authority for these issues.

Joint legal custody means that the parents must make these decisions together.

If one parent has sole physical custody, they almost always will have sole legal custody as well because it doesn't make sense for a parent who is not physically involved in the child's life to have decision-making authority. However, this is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Legal custody could be sole or joint if the parents share a joint physical custody arrangement.

Court Criteria for Sole Physical Custody Orders

Every state determines child custody based on what is in the best interests of the child. There is no presumption that either parent should have custody or more time with the child.

Instead, the court usually considers a wide range of factors set out in the state custody guidelines, which may include:

  • The child's physical and mental health
  • The physical and mental health of the parents
  • The age of the child
  • Which parent has been the primary caregiver
  • The parenting skills of each parent and their relationship with the child
  • The parents' work schedule
  • Child care arrangements
  • The parents' ability to cooperate with each other to share time
  • Other children (half-siblings) and where they live
  • The child's adjustment to school and community
  • Domestic violence or child abuse in the home
  • Parents' history of substance abuse
  • The presence of other adults in either parents' home and the child's relationship with them
  • The child's relationship with extended family
  • The child's preference (depending on the child’s age and maturity).

Each state has its own specific laws about the factors that must be considered, but judges usually have the discretion to consider anything they find to be relevant.

Sole physical custody is usually only ordered when the other parent is abusive or absent from the child's life or has surrendered or lost parental rights. Even in those situations, the court may order supervised visitation to attempt to maintain a relationship between parent and child.

It is much more common for a court to order joint physical custody with one parent having sole or primary residential custody.

Visitation in Sole Physical Custody

While the custodial parent has the child living with them and is responsible for the day-to-day care, the non-custodial parent is often granted visitation rights to maintain a relationship with the child.

Types of Visitation

1. Scheduled Visitation

This is the most common type of visitation, where specific dates and times are set for the non-custodial parent to spend time with the child. This schedule can include weekends, holidays, birthdays, and extended time during school vacations.

2. Reasonable Visitation

A more flexible arrangement that allows parents to work out visitation times as needed. It is common for the noncustodial parent to have "reasonable visitation," which allows them to spend time with the child in a way that is considered fair and appropriate.

The visitation schedule can be determined through mutual agreement or with the assistance of legal professionals to ensure it is appropriate and beneficial for the child

son dad sole physical custody

3. Supervised Visitation

Supervised visitation is a court-ordered arrangement where a parent can spend time with their child only under the supervision of another adult to ensure the child's safety and well-being. This type of visitation is typically implemented in situations where there are concerns about the child's safety or well-being when alone with the parent.

The supervised visits can occur in various settings, such as designated facilities, public locations, or even at home under the supervision of an approved individual

4. Virtual Visitation

As technology advances, courts are increasingly accepting virtual visitation as a supplement to in-person visits, particularly when distance is a factor. This includes video calls, messaging, or other digital means.

The Most Common Visitation Schedules

When sole physical custody is granted, common visitation schedules include:

  • Alternating weekends: where the child lives with one parent and visits the other every other weekend.
  • 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends: the child lives with one parent and visits the other on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends.
  • 2nd, 4th, and 5th weekends: the child lives with one parent and visits the other on the 2nd, 4th, and 5th weekends of a month.
  • Every 3rd weekend: the child lives with one parent and visits the other every 3rd weekend.
  • Use of 3rd-party time: incorporating time when neither parent has the child to adjust parenting time percentages.

These schedules aim to maintain relationships between both parents and the child while ensuring stability and predictability in the child's life.

Factors to Consider When Creating a Schedule

When creating a visitation schedule, there are several factors to consider to ensure it is fair, practical, and in the best interest of the child. Here are some key points to consider:

1. The child's age and developmental needs

The child's age and stage of development should be taken into account when determining the schedule. For example, younger children may require more frequent visits, while older children may prefer longer visits with each parent.

2. The parents' work schedules

Both parents' work schedules should be considered when creating the visitation schedule. This will help ensure that the child can spend time with both parents without disrupting their work responsibilities.

3. The child's school schedule

The child's school schedule should also be considered when creating the visitation schedule. This will help ensure that the child can attend school and participate in extracurricular activities without disruption.

4. The parents' geographic location

If the parents live far apart, the visitation schedule should take into account the distance between their homes and the time it takes to travel. This will help ensure that the child can spend time with both parents without excessive travel time.

5. The child's preferences

If the child is old enough, their preferences should be taken into account when creating the visitation schedule. This will help ensure that the child feels involved and supported in the process.

6. The parents' ability to cooperate

The ability of the parents to cooperate and communicate effectively should be considered when creating the visitation schedule. This will help ensure that the schedule is fair and practical for both parents.

7. The child's relationship with each parent

The child's relationship with each parent should be taken into account when creating the visitation schedule. This will help ensure that the child can maintain a strong bond with both parents.

By considering these factors, you can create a visitation schedule that is fair, practical, and in the best interest of the child.

Sole Physical Custody: Pros and Cons

You should be aware of the pros and cons of the different types of custody.


  • Stability and Consistency: The child benefits from a stable and consistent living environment, which can be crucial for their emotional and psychological development. Having one primary residence eliminates the stress and confusion that might come from frequently moving between homes.
  • Less Exchanges: Fewer exchanges can be easier for parents who live far apart or who have very busy work schedules, reducing logistical challenges and stress for both parents and the child.
  • Focused Relationship Building: It allows the child to build a strong, stable relationship with the custodial parent, which can be beneficial for their emotional security.


  • Reduced Parent-Child Bonding: The child may have limited time with the non-custodial parent, which can affect their relationship negatively, potentially leading to feelings of abandonment or estrangement.
  • Increased Responsibility for Custodial Parent: The custodial parent may face increased stress and responsibility, having to manage all aspects of the child's care alone, which can be overwhelming.
  • Potential for Conflict: If not amicably agreed upon, the arrangement can lead to ongoing conflicts between parents, affecting their ability to co-parent effectively and possibly impacting the child's emotional well-being.

Modifying Sole Physical Custody Arrangements

Any custody arrangement can be modified if there is a change in circumstances, and then the decision is based on what is in the best interests of the child.

If the modification is sought post-judgment, some states may require a “substantial” change in circumstances (i.e., California). However, each state is different and seeking legal advice is recommended.

A sole physical custody order could be modified if the non-custodial parent:

  • Completes substance abuse treatment
  • Is released from prison
  • Moves closer to the child and can have a relationship

Modification could also occur if:

  • The custodial parent becomes abusive or presents a danger to the child
  • The child is a teen and wishes to have contact with the other parent

If a parent surrenders or loses their parental rights, they can never regain them, even if their circumstances change.

Final Thoughts

Sole physical custody aims to promote the well-being and stability of the child, while balancing the benefits of stable living conditions against the challenges that come with potentially reduced parent-child bonding and increased responsibilities for the custodial parent.

Being flexible and open to custody adjustments is crucial to address the child's evolving needs. The focus should always remain on supporting the child's development and ensuring that decisions are made with their best interests in mind.

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