Sole Custody, Full Custody, and Joint Custody – Differences Explained
Updated: Feb 16
In sole (or full) custody, one parent has the right to direct the child’s upbringing.
In joint custody, both parents have a say in the child’s upbringing.
The only Oklahoma statute defining joint custody, says that “joint custody” means “the sharing by parents in all or some of the aspects of physical and legal care, custody, and control of their children.” 43 O.S. § 109(B). In other words, if parents have joint custody, the parents are expected to cooperate regarding making decisions for the children. This often includes cooperation on decisions relating to the children’s education, medical care, and religious upbringing. Several court cases have held that if parents are unable to cooperate with each other, such inability to cooperate can be grounds for terminating joint custody and awarding sole custody to one parent. See Bilyeu v. Bilyeu. Also, some Oklahoma appeals court cases have expressed disapproval of lower courts awarding joint custody when neither parent has requested joint custody. See Kilpatrick v. Kilpatrick; Anderson v. Anderson. However, no law absolutely prohibits awarding joint custody when neither parent has requested it.
If one or both parents request joint custody, then, the parent(s) requesting joint custody must submit, to the court, a plan “for the exercise of joint care, custody, and control of their child.” When parent(s) submit a joint custody plan, the parent(s) submitting the plan must also sign an affidavit stating that they will abide by the plan. 43 O.S. § 109(C).
A joint custody plan “shall include but is not limited to provisions detailing the physical living arrangements for the child, child support obligations, medical and dental care for the child, school placement, and visitation rights.” 43 O.S. § 109(C). Beyond that, there is no statute or case law, that says, specifically, what a joint custody plan must include, or what a joint custody arrangement must entail. Each case is different, and courts are expected to make custody awards based on the circumstances of each case.
Before awarding joint custody, the court must issue a final plan. Often, in joint custody cases, the court merely approves the plan the parent(s) submitted, and adopts this plan as the final plan. Or, the court may make a few changes to the parents’ plan, and adopt the plan. 43 O.S. § 109(D).
Once a court issues or approves a joint custody plan, this plan becomes an order of the court. If a parent does not follow the joint custody plan, the court may punish the non-compliant parent for contempt of court.
Often, when a court awards joint custody, the court will designate one parent as the “primary custodian.” Whichever parent is the primary custodian, determines what the child’s legal residence is. This can be important in determining where the child goes to school. A recent court case, Boatman v. Boatman, held that only the primary custodian can change the child’s residence. However, the primary custodian does not have rights superior to the other parent, in making other decisions related to the child’s upbringing.
Sole Custody and Full Custody
There is no statute or court case that explicitly defines “sole custody.” Generally, if one parent has sole custody, the non-custodial parent has no say in making decisions for the child regarding care, custody, or control. The custodial parent does not need to consult the non-custodial parent on matters such as the child’s education, medical care, and religious upbringing.
However, in one court case, Ford v. Ford, the court awarded the mother sole custody, but “ordered the parties to share equally any decisions affecting the education, major medical, dental, and surgical need of the children.” The father appealed this ruling, arguing that the order was really a joint custody order. The appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling. The appellate court acknowledged that the trial court’s ruling “could blur some of the attributes of sole custody.” But the appellate court held that a trial court could award sole custody, and order the parties to equally share decision making.
When a parent is awarded sole custody, the parent does not need to submit a plan to the court. Nor does a court need to issue a plan when it awards sole custody.
There is no statute or court case that defines “full custody.” However, the cases that use the term “full custody” use the term interchangeably with the term “sole custody.” See Buffalo v. Buffalo; Le v. Nguyen.
Note that, the terms sole custody and joint custody, do not necessarily relate to how much time each parent may spend with the children. Often, both parents who have joint custody, each spend more time with the children, than the non-custodial parent does under a sole custody order. However, this is not always the case.
The bottom line is: Generally, joint custodial parents will often have equal rights to participate in decision-making for the child, but, if one parent has sole custody, the parents will often not have equal rights to participate in decision-making matters. Each case is different, though, and judges are expected to take into account the best interests of the child in each individual case.