In this part three of our series on parental responsibility, traditionally called legal custody, we will discuss sole parental responsibility, a status the court grants in some divorces, separations or parenting disputes between unmarried parents. When one parent has sole parental responsibility, they alone have the all the rights and complete responsibility to make important life decisions for the child.
In other words, the other parent has no legal power to influence or direct decisions about health care, religion, education and similarly impactful areas of a child’s life that may be unique to the child or their family.
Getting to sole parental responsibility
As we explained in parts one and two, pressures from the Florida and U.S. Constitutions that recognize parental rights to raise their own children are reflected in state laws to an extent. In Florida, a judge presented with the question of assigning to one or both parents parental decision-making authority must order shared responsibility unless it would be detrimental to the child.
When interpreting the state statute requiring detriment to deviate from shared powers, judges who considering whether detriment would be present if the parents shared this authority have generally required a high bar. “Substantial competent evidence” must exist of potential detriment.
For example, just because two parents have a hard time agreeing on important issues or face conflict when they interact, the judge will likely expect them to work through these issues as joint decision makers for their children. Parental hostility is usually not enough to predict detriment to the child from shared parental authority.
Detriment leads to sole decision-making authority
To order sole parental responsibility, a judge first must find that shared would be detrimental to the child. Then, the only choice that remains is to give all the decision-making power to one parent solely.
Often, the choice of parent to get sole powers is obvious as the risk of detriment from shared powers is often related to issues with one of the parents, so the other is the obvious choice to get sole powers. Obvious problems that not only may support detriment, but also weigh against having decision-making authority could be substance abuse, certain mental or physical impairments, history of violence or abuse and similar issues.
However, sometimes the judge may base a finding of potential detriment in shared powers and an award of sole decision-making authority on something less obvious or severe. For example, one parent may simply have a history of disinterest or lack of involvement with the child’s life, even in important areas. Or one parent may have demonstrated an inability to relate to or understand the child’s needs.