What does it mean to obtain "full custody?"

I see and hear this question quite a bit on legal question boards and other websites. Typically, someone asks if they can get “full custody” and provides more specific information about their situation. Maybe Dad is now incarcerated, or Mom left the kids and hasn’t been in the picture for years, and the questioner wants to know their chances in court.

Under Pennsylvania law, there is no definition or use of the term “full custody.” It seems to be one of those popular phrases that sounds like a legal thing, but it’s not. Most people mean “sole custody,” but even this is an inaccurate description of how the court awards custody to a parent.

Here’s what a court can award you: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody is defined in the law: “the actual physical possession and control of a child.” Legal custody is defined in the law too: “The right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions.”

When someone wants full or sole custody, the parent is telling the court that his/her home is the only residence of the child and he/she should be the only person making decisions on behalf of the child.

If there are two parents involved, that’s a big request. In most situations, the court will want to provide some form of physical custody to both parents and shared legal custody between the parents. However, there are definitely situations (and I’ve seen them) where sole legal and physical custody to one parent makes sense, either to protect the child from an unsafe situation, or if the parent is not involved in the child’s life at all.

If you have questions about your chances of obtaining sole legal and physical custody, or about your custody options in general, feel free to email or call me to set up a consultation.


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Leech Tishman

112 W. Foster Ave., Suite 301

State College, PA 16801



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