Distinction: Joint Custody & Sole Custody – Crucial & Meaningless

Let’s start with the central premise that when a child is born and the father is on the birth certificate, the parties automatically have joint custody of the child. The modern trend in Rhode Island Family Court in divorce and Miscellaneous cases favors litigants being awarded joint custodial rights over their children.

Best interest of the child is the custodial standard in Rhode Island

RI custody, sole custody and joint custody

Rhode Island child custody law (joint custody and sole custody)

If both parents are good parents who care about their children then there should be an award of joint custody by the Providence Family Court. Even bad parents who meet the minimum standards set by the state are usually awarded joint custodial rights. The general standard in RI to determine the custody of a child is the best interest of the child standard. In reality, this standard is completely subjective and somewhat meaningless as far as legal custody is concerned.

What types of cases may (I emphasize MAY) warrant an award of sole legal custody to one parent over another parent?

  • The parent without residential placement has little to no visitation or relationship with the child
  • The parent resides out of state or out of the country.
  • A parent has severe psychological issues that makes them unfit to make proper custodial decisions related to the child
  • The parents cannot communicate concerning decisions concerning the child in any meaningful way (Most judges will take the position that they will award joint custody even in cases in which the parents are arguing and fighting constantly and there is no meaningful communication or co-parenting.)
  • A parent has a severe drug or alcohol problem that renders them unfit to participate in custodial decisions
  • Domestic Violence or abuse of the child
  • other factors that the Court believes is important
  • A history of serious criminal conduct, arrests or convictions
  • A parent misses court, fails to attend court hearings and is defaulted.
  • A parent neglects, abuses or mistreats his or her children

“Full custody” is not a legal term in Rhode Island but “Full Custody” is usually slang for physical custody combined with sole custody

In many cases including divorce, even if some or all of the above factors pertain, joint custody is the path of least resistance. Many litigants with residential placement of children decide that it is basically not worth the stress and attorney’s fees to fight to obtain sole custody. However, the parent without physical custody should and will usually fight this battle to the end, if necessary.

Joint custody is more significant to the non-possessory parent then it is to the parent with physical placement of the minor child with a few notable exceptions. The reason for this is because a parent can try to use an award of sole legal custody to try to shut the father out of the child’s life. For example a mother with placement and sole custody could refuse to tell the father about medical appointments, sporting events, extracurricular activities, school issues or other events related to the child.

The sole custody or joint custody distinction can be very significant if a passport needs to be obtained or if a major life altering decision needs to be made for the child such as a surgical decision or major medical decision

The distinction between joint and sole custody for the mother or parent with physical custody is relatively insignificant. It usually is not worth the legal cost, numerous Court Hearings and emotional toll to battle to try to get sole custody in a RI Divorce or Family Law Case. The difference between joint and sole legal custody in Rhode Island is somewhat meaningless to the parent with physical custody because a parent is legally complying with joint custodial rights by doing the bare minimum of notifying the other parent of medical, dental and orthodontist appointments, extracurricular activities as well as school related issues.

A parent with placement and joint legal custody with the other parent is only, really, legally required to do the bare minimum which is to keep the other parent apprised of all medical treatment, school related issues as well as extracurricular activities. The other parent should be allowed to attend all parent teacher conferences as well as medical appointments.I emphasize that the bare minimum is all that is legally required in Rhode Island but a good parent will try to co-parent and communicate with their ex-spouse or ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.

Definition of Sole Legal custody

Sole Legal Custody means that a parent can make all important and major decisions concerning a child’s health, welfare and upbringing without consulting with the other parent. These major decisions include religious, educational, medical and general welfare decisions. The parent with sole custody of the child will also have physical placement of the child. The parent with sole legal custody has complete access to medical, educational and other records related to the child.

Joint Legal Custody

Joint Legal Custody means both parents should be involved in major / important decisions concerning a child’s upbringing, education, medical and religious welfare. Theoretically, both parents with joint custody have equal rights in making important decisions regarding their child or children. Both parents have full rights to access all medical, educational and other records pertaining to the child. In order for joint Custody to be feasible, the parents must have some level of communication and respect for each other to allow them to co-parent.

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