Can Sole Custody Be Reversed?

Yes, any legalized custody arrangement can be changed, though generally, you must show a change in circumstances to justify this change—a reason why it should be changed until you appeal it and a court reverses the original custody order. There are many reasons why you might win a custody modification case.

What Is Sole Custody?

Sole custody is when a parent retains sole physical custody of their child; their child lives with them full time, they may have visits (supervised or not) with the other parent, and the rights and needs of the child are determined by the parent retaining sole custody.

Sole custody generally refers to physical custody of the child, also called full custody. The parent that retains legal sole custody of the child makes all the major decisions regarding their life and does not need to consult the other parent—this can include decisions about education, medication and medical care, religion, moral development, and more. The other parent can make daily decisions over the child still, including decisions during visitation.

Is it Possible to Reverse a Sole Custody Ruling?

Yes, though the road ahead can be quite challenging. Thankfully, underdog stories are common in the American legal system, and there are many options to reverse a legal sole custody ruling. After a court has judged you unfit for custody, you must undergo this huge task. Reversing sole custody or gaining a parenting plan modification is not something you can accomplish alone—you will need the experience and knowledge of an excellent professional family lawyer. 

5 Reasons a Judge Will Change a Child Custody Order

1. Physical Relocation

After the custodial parent moves, the noncustodial parent can ask the court to modify the original custody order. While moving isn’t considered a substantial reason to change a custody ruling on its face, there are factors that can influence the decision. While this petition may not succeed, the court will factor the relocation into their decision-making.

The court may consider a move or relocation as a valid reason to modify the existing custody arrangement if:

  • The move places too great a physical or financial burden on the noncustodial parent.
  • The relocation has a significant effect on the child, whether positive or negative.

In some situations, the court might limit the custodial parent’s ability to move depending on the original agreed-upon order. Some custodial agreements might say that the custodial parent must provide notice a set amount of time before the move, or limit the miles that the custodial parent can move away from the noncustodial parent.

2. One Parent Refuses to Follow the Custody Terms

The original custody order is based on the agreements made while drafting it—either through mutual agreement, or the decision of a judge. If the other parent no longer holds to the terms, you have a problem. Maybe they’re not returning the child home at the agreed-upon time every week, or they’re taking extended road trips, or violating the custody terms in an educational or religious manner that is outlined in the custody agreement.

If this happens, you may file a petition to modify the existing child custody order. You need to provide notice to the other parent, and present sufficient evidence to the court that demonstrates the violations you have seen, all of which should be major changes to the circumstances of the order or deeply affect the child’s overall welfare. Outside of filing a custody modification, you may ask the other parent to be held in contempt of court for not following the legal agreement.

It’s best to work with an experienced and knowledgeable family lawyer to take you through all these steps properly and help you succeed.

3. The Child’s Needs Have Changed

Over time, the needs of the child will change. If you drafted the original custody order when the child was a toddler, what they want/need will change remarkably by the time they’re in high school. They might require new and different environments to thrive in throughout their life, making one home unfit. They may need to alter their plans from weekend to weekend, making visitations difficult or impossible. If you can show the court that the child’s needs have drastically changed, you can seek a custody modification.

This is especially true if the child develops a disorder, whether emotional, mental, or physical. One parent may be more suited to care for them than the other, and this could nullify visitations entirely. The parent that wants to modify the sole custody order will have to prove the changes are substantial, under the discretion of the judge.

4. A Parent’s Situation Has Changed

Sole child custody orders aren’t permanent, because the courts know that the needs of the child and the circumstances of the parent change over time. Still, to file a custody change based on the altered circumstances of the parents, you need to showcase that the change is fairly substantial, and affects the child’s overall health and home.

Both positive and negative circumstances can justify a change in custody. For instance, if the noncustodial parent was an alcoholic or drug addict during the initial order but is now several years sober with a good job, the parent might be able to gain a custody modification so they can have more time with their child.

5. The Child Is in Danger

The child’s best interest is always the number one consideration when it comes to custody, and so any potential endangerment is the primary reason a judge might change custody. If either parent is engaging in dangerous or inappropriate behavior, the court might modify the order and limit or remove the parent’s rights to any custody at all.

Here are some possible behaviors that could justify a custody change under endangerment:

  • Abuse, whether it’s emotional, sexual, physical, verbal, or psychological.
  • Placing the child in dangerous or abusive circumstances.
  • Drug, alcohol, or other substance abuse that puts the child at risk of harm.
  • Dangerous mental health concerns, including unstable environments, psychotic breaks, erratic behavior, and hospitalization.

If the child is ever in urgent danger, suspected or otherwise, you should call the authorities and immediately file a motion.

At the end of the day, sole custody can be reversed when it’s in the best interest of the child. If circumstances change dramatically for any reason, it’s in the best interest of the child to be placed in a home that provides them the care, stability, and comfort they need for proper growth and a good life. Seek a professional family lawyer that can help you during every step of this crucial process.

Picture of JARROD HAYS


Jarrod Hays is the founder of Skyview Law. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and the Western District of Washington State Federal Court.

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