When can a parent win sole custody of a child?

While many states prefer that divorcing parents share joint custody of their children, Tennessee is not one of them. That is not to say the state favors either the mother or the father. Instead, it means the state sets aside any bias toward shared custody—or any other outcome—in favor of whatever is best for your child.

Accordingly, there are several situations in which the state might award you sole custody, but they all focus on your child’s best interests.

Determining your child’s best interests

If you want to win sole custody of your child, you want to understand how Tennessee courts view your child’s best interests. You may believe you know what’s best for your child, but the courts regard the matter through a different lens. To determine your child’s best interests, a judge will review at least 14 different factors:

  • The strength of your child’s relationships with each parent
  • Your past and potential parenting, including your ability to encourage your child’s relationship with the other parent
  • Any refusal to participate in a court ordered parent education seminar
  • Your ability to provide your child with food, clothing, medical care, education and other necessities
  • Your history of demonstrated parental responsibility
  • The ties of love and emotion binding your child to each parent
  • Your child’s emotional and developmental needs
  • Each parent’s mental, physical and emotional fitness, as it concerns the ability to care for your child
  • Your child’s interactions with siblings and significant involvement in school and the community
  • Any evidence of physical abuse, whether toward your child or any other person
  • Whether anyone else in your home may offer a threat or benefit to your child
  • Your work schedule
  • Your child’s preference, if your child is at least 12 years old

In addition, the court may review any other factor it deems relevant. It’s worth noting that during its reviews, the court relies on evidence. You want to make sure you provide the type of evidence most likely to have the desired effect.

Finally, there are some instances in which the courts presume it is not in a child’s best interests for a parent to win joint or sole custody of a child. These generally reflect a concern for the child’s safety and include:

  • A conviction for child abuse
  • The willful abandonment of a child for 18 months or longer
  • A parent under indictment for various forms of child abuse

In other words, you stand a good chance of winning sole custody if the other parent presents a real safety concern. Barring those situations, you face a higher standard to prove that giving you sole custody is what’s best for your child.

The differences between legal custody, physical custody and visitation time

It is also important to note that Tennessee looks at custody in two ways:

  • Legal custody addresses a parent’s rights to make key decisions about a child’s religious and moral upbringing, health care and education
  • Physical custody is about where the child lives

Courts do not have to award legal and physical custody in the same way. For example, you might win sole legal custody and joint physical custody. Or you could win joint legal custody and sole physical custody. The court evaluates and awards each type of custody separately.

It is also important to note that an award of sole physical custody does not prevent the other parent from playing an ongoing role in your child’s life. Even if you have sole physical custody, the other parent may have right to specified visitation or residential times. Unless the court rules otherwise, your ex will also have the right to attend certain events, like school plays or sporting events, and to request school and medical records.

Custody modifications can address significant changes

Certain life changes may require modifications to the original custody order. This means that even if you didn’t win sole custody at first, certain changes may give you another chance to argue that sole custody is best for your child. These include:

  • The other parent’s repeated failures to follow the parenting plan
  • Career changes or changes in living circumstances that affect either parent’s ability to care for your child
  • Significant changes in your child’s needs, including changes that come with age
  • Either parent’s desire to move

When you ask for a custody modification, the court reviews your child’s best interests all over again. It doesn’t just look at the changes. If the court finds that the new circumstances make it best for you to hold sole custody, it can change the previous award, whatever that may have been.

It is worth noting that custody modifications are often time-consuming and hard-fought. The court is unlikely to make a change unless you can show the status quo leaves your child suffering or at-risk.

Doing the right thing for your child

It is not always necessary to take your custody concerns to court. If you and the other parent can reach an agreement through mediation or other forms of negotiation, you may save yourself some time and trouble.

However, if you and the other parent cannot reach an agreement, you want to do what’s best for your child. Joint custody is sometimes the best option, but not always. When you know your sole custody is the best thing for your child, you want to make sure you present the right evidence. This is the key to ensuring that the court sees things your way.