What is “full custody”??

By reading the title of this blog, you probably expected me to have an answer to that question. If I had a dime for every time I heard potential clients talk about “full custody”, I would be retired on an island and not writing this blog.

I often hear some variation of the following: I want full custody; I am afraid my spouse/significant other will fight for full custody; my friend got full custody; can I get full custody? But, to family lawyers, the term “full custody” does not mean anything specific.

In New Jersey, there are two main types of custody and “full” is not one of them: legal (sole or joint) and physical (sole or joint). Joint legal custody shared by two parents allows them to have decision-making power and input over a child’s health, education, and welfare. A legal custodian is entitled to health and educational information for the child. It is possible for a parent to have joint legal custody, but not be involved in the child’s life in a meaningful way. In fact, it is very rare in New Jersey for one parent to have sole legal custody, which means they have sole decision making power over the child’s health, education, and welfare to the exclusion of the other parent.

Physical custody, as opposed to legal custody, is the amount of time a child actually spends with a parent. “Joint” or “shared” custody means that the parents equally share the child 50/50. Sole physical custody can mean that the non-custodial parent either has “parenting time” with the child or no parenting time at all.

When I hear that a client wants “full custody”, my initial question is, do you really want sole legal and sole physical custody? Do you truly not want the other parent to have any contact with the child or any say in his/her upbringing? The vast majority of the time, the answer is, of course, no; that parent generally does want the other parent involved in the child’s life. Essentially, by “full custody”, that parent generally means he/she wants the child to live primarily with him/her and spend less physical time with the other parent.

The situations where a parent truly wants “full custody” (which can, realistically, only mean sole legal and sole physical custody) are few and far between. Even more rare is a Court actually imposing such restrictions.

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