Legal How-To: Getting Sole Custody of Your Kids

By Brett Snider, Esq. on May 06, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Getting sole custody of your kids may take some work, but it certainly isn't impossible. What does a parent need to do in order to obtain sole custody?

All things being equal, courts may prefer to grant shared custody to both parents. But things aren't always equal or ideal, especially when it comes to the best interests of your children.

Every case is unique, but consider these steps when figuring out how to retain sole custody of your kids:

  1. Determine paternity (if that's an issue). Whether you're embroiled in a divorce or you're leaving an unmarried relationship, you need to figure out what (if any) paternity rights you or your former partner has. Biological parents have the right to seek child visitation and child custody, which can be helpful for unwed fathers seeking sole custody. Paternity may also be established by a voluntary legal agreement or birth certificate, so make sure to have these documents handy.
  2. Review your state's child-custody laws. Each state treats child custody cases differently, with most states preferring custody agreements that uphold the best interests of the child. Some states, like West Virginia, may give deference to the current primary caregiver and will not give joint custody.
  3. Make an official request for sole custody. If you are currently in the midst of a divorce, you'll want to speak with your divorce attorney about making a request for full custody either in mediation or in your divorce papers. If you're already separated or unmarried, you may simply need to submit your state's official form requesting a modification of child custody.
  4. Prepare your arguments. You'll need to strategize about the arguments you will present to the court for your sole custody of your children. You can argue for terminating your ex's parental rights by laying out evidence of physical abuse, neglect, or drug abuse. Always couch your argument for sole custody in terms of what's best for your children.
  5. Gather evidence. You'll need documents, photographs, or medical paperwork to support any claims of poor parenting on your ex's part. Many parents are increasingly turning to Facebook, Instagram, and other social-media platforms for particularly damning photos or statements by the other parent.
  6. Prepare your witnesses. Although this can often be very hard for friends and family, you will need witnesses to testify to your strengths as a parent -- and possibly the other parent's weaknesses. Here are some witness do's and don'ts that can come in handy.
  7. Attend your custody hearing. Before you can get sole custody, you'll likely have to attend a custody hearing. Don't freak out. Try to speak calmly, listen to the judge, and make sure to dress appropriately.

Need More Help?

It's possible to pursue sole child custody on your own, but hiring a lawyer can pay off in many ways.

An experienced child custody lawyer will know the laws in your state and what factors the court will weigh most heavily. An attorney can also speak for you at the court hearing and deal with the other parent and/or the other parent's lawyer, which can help reduce your stress level.

Obtaining sole custody can be a long road, but can certainly be worthwhile. To learn more, check out FindLaw's free Guide to Child Custody.

Editor's Note, May 10, 2016: This post was first published in May 2014. It has since been updated.

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