Does Sole Custody Terminate Parental Rights?

If you don’t get sole custody of your children during your divorce, your parental rights aren’t terminated. 

Sole custody and parental rights are legal terms that pertain to a relationship between parent and child. But they mean very different things. 

A parent without sole custody still has rights and is still considered the child’s parent.

A parent with terminated parental rights is no longer the child’s legal parent and has no associated rights. A different family could adopt the child, and the parent would have no legal grounds to contest that adoption.

Read: Can a Special Master Help in My Child Custody Matter?

Sole custody vs. parental rights: What’s the difference?

Parents have various rights in relation to their children. But divorces can strain the parent-child relationship, and sometimes, courts limit what parents can and can't do after a divorce.

Custody involves living arrangements, legal decisions, or both. A parent without sole custody has limited rights but is still considered the child's parent. 

Parental rights involve the legal relationship between parent and child. If parental rights are terminated, the child can be placed with a new family, even if you don’t want to let the child go. 

Sole custody and parental rights are completely different legal concepts. Losing parental rights severs your legal relationship with your child. If you don’t get sole custody, you still maintain your parental rights. 

What does it mean to lose parental rights?

Losing parental rights means that officials believe the child isn't safe in your home. You're incapable of meeting the child's basic needs, and officials think the child will be safer with someone else. 

Parents who lose parental rights generally abuse their children, use drugs, or otherwise make the home unsafe or unsuitable. In some states, parents who lose parental rights can get them back again. But often, parents who lose parental rights never get them back again.

If you lose your parental rights, you may no longer be able to do the following:

  • Raise your child
  • Talk with your child
  • Visit with your child 
  • Block your child's adoption to a new family
  • Make any kind of decision about your child

The specifics can vary somewhat between jurisdictions, but most states do not allow visitation after parental rights have been lost. 

What does it mean to lose sole custody?

When your marriage ends, your ex could petition the court for sole custody. If your ex wins, you don't lose all of your rights.

Two types of sole custody exist:

  • Physical: A parent with sole custody lives with the child and provides day-to-day care. 
  • Legal: A parent with sole legal custody makes all health and welfare choices for the child. 

If you don't have physical custody, your child won't live with you. Visits are likely, and you'll be encouraged to maintain a relationship with your child. But you won't wake up and walk down the hall to see your child every morning. 

If you don't have legal custody, you have no say in where your child goes to school, what kind of healthcare your child receives, or which religion the child practices. 

You can lose just one type of sole custody or both. Either way, you still have the right to stay connected to your child, and you might even be required to pay child support to help your child as they grow.

How are custody and parental responsibility decided?

Courts advocate for children during divorces and other legal proceedings. You won't lose custody or parental rights without a court's influence. 

Parental rights are terminated when courts determine a child can't grow up safely in the home, either because you pose a risk to the child or yourself. The grounds for terminating rights vary from state to state. 

Courts make custody decisions during your divorce. In most states, courts consider factors such as these:

  • The child’s health
  • The child’s age
  • The child's emotional connection to the parents
  • Any exposure to violence, substance abuse, or neglect 
  • Ties to home or school

You can petition for joint or shared custody during your divorce, but the judge will make a final decision based on what your child needs.


What rights does a non-sole-custody parent have?

States define rights for parents without custody, and those rules can vary. In general, even if you don't have sole custody, you still have rights. 

In Oregon, for example, both parents can access medical and school records and authorize emergency medical care, no matter who has custody.

You also have the right to visit your child, even if you lose sole physical custody. You can use the courts to keep the custodial parent from moving too far away so your relationship is preserved. 

Losing sole custody battles can be frustrating. But remember that you still have the right to remain a loving presence in your child's life. A divorce doesn't change that right.

Suggested: 9 Terms to Know When Making Child Custody Decisions


Sole Custody. (August 2021). Cornell Law School. 
Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights. (2021). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. 
I Lost My Parental Rights. How Can I Get My Children Back? (June 2022). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 
Basics of Custody and Visitation Orders. Judicial Branch of California. 
Custody and Parenting Time. Oregon Judicial Branch.
Divorce Specialists
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