What is joint custody? What is sole custody?

Even where there has been an amicable settlement on the issue of a child’s principal residence, parents can get hung up on terminology. One parent insists she wants “sole custody” and the other parent fights to include the phrase “joint custody” in the written agreement.

This fight over language is often less important legally than the spouses think. These terms typically refer to a parent’s rights to make decisions regarding the child, with “sole custody” indicating that the parent with possession has most or all of the decision-making authority and with “joint custody” tending to indicate that each parent will have some decision-making input.

In actuality, however, the terms “joint” and “sole” mean whatever the written custody document says they mean. You need to keep this in mind as you draft your agreement; you also need to keep this in mind when you start to find yourself in a fight over phraseology.

The terms “sole custody” and “joint custody” have no special meaning in North Carolina except the meaning you give them in an agreement or the meaning a judge gives these terms in a court order. In other words, it all depends on what else the document says, if anything, about decision-making.

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