If you and your child’s other parent have separated and divorce is on the horizon, you may be worried that a judge could separate you from your children. How Colorado courts decide child custody doesn’t have to be a mystery. The secret is this: they aim to do what is best for the child.
In this blog post I will review Colorado’s laws surrounding child custody. I will explain how trial court judges decide allocation of parental responsibility between parents. I will also share strategies you can use to smooth the process and come to a resolution that is in your child’s best interests.
Child Custody and the Allocation of Parental Responsibility
Child custody is an older term in Colorado family law. Until the late 1990s, unmarried parents and divorcing spouses would enter Colorado courts to fight for sole legal and physical custody of their minor children. Legal custody meant the power to make important decisions in the child’s life. Physical custody was about who the children spent their time with. Joint custody meant that parents needed to be in constant contact, reviewing every major decision together before acting in their children’s best interests.
That all-or-nothing approach didn’t really reflect how families operate. In the modern world, Mom may be the one going to the doctors with the child and making decisions about vaccinations or whether a cut needs stitches. But Dad may be more capable to weigh issues of education or religious training.
That’s why in 1999 Colorado changed its laws from child custody to the allocation of parental responsibility. Under this new structure, judges have the authority to divide up decision-making authority and physical visitation in a way that keeps both parents involved in their children’s lives without creating artificial “joint” decisions.
Colorado Allocation of Decision-Making Responsibility
When parents ask the courts to decide “legal custody”, the judge will consider several factors in allocating decision-making responsibility between them. This includes:
• Whether the parents can cooperate to make decisions together
• How decisions were made, and by whom, in the past, and whether the pattern suggests mutual decision-making will provide a positive and nourishing relationship with the child.
• Whether mutual decision-making will promote more frequent and on-going contact between parent and child.
• If either parent has committed child abuse, child neglect, or spouse abuse
• Both parties’ ability to encourage love, affection, and contact between the children and their other parent
• How well the parents communicate
• Whether each parent is able to put their children’s needs first, before their own desires
• How far apart the parents live and their practical ability to participate in joint decision-making
When a judge allocates decision-making responsibility, it is just that. This decision does not affect parenting time decisions or child support. It also must be based on the child’s best interests, not the parents. In some cases, the judge may appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or Representative of the Child to investigate and recommend whether shared decision-making is the best course of action.
Determination of Parenting Time
While decision-making is important, when conflict arises regarding children in a divorce or custody action it is more often around the distribution of parenting time. Once again, the court will look at what is in the best interests of the child. Colorado state law requires the court to consider all relevant factors, including:
• The parents’ wishes
• The child’s wishes
• The way the child interacts with parents, siblings, and others important to the child
• The child’s adjustment in his or her home, school, and community
• The mental and physical health of everyone involved
• The ability of each parent to encourage the sharing of love, affection and contact between the child and the other parent.
• The past pattern of parental involvement with the child, and whether it reflects a system of values, time commitment, and mutual support
• The physical distance between the parties
• Whether either parent has committed child abuse, child neglect, or spouse abuse
• The ability of each parent to put the child’s needs before his or her own
Both parents are entitled to reasonable parenting time in almost every case. Unless the court terminates a parent’s rights, or the parent has been convicted of certain crimes, that parent will be entitled to at least some parenting time. However, where safety is a concern, the court may order that parenting time be supervised, or that exchanges take place in a way that protects the parents and child.
How to Resolve Child Custody Disputes
No judge can craft a child custody order or allocation of parental responsibility that will work as well as a schedule agreed to by the parents. Judges only have so much time to learn your work schedule, your child’s needs, and all the other details that go into crafting a parenting time schedule. Holiday traditions, regular overtime, traffic patterns and hundreds of other details can affect how well a parenting plan will work. That is why resolving child custody disputes outside the court room is always better if it is possible.
Mediation is one common child custody resolution. You, the other parent, and your family law attorneys all sit down and work through the details to try to come to resolution. The mediator is trained to facilitate the parties’ negotiations and move them closer to agreement.
If that fails, the court may also order an independent assessment by a qualified evaluator who can perform psychological assessments of parents’ character and abilities. The evaluator will also look at how the parents and child interact, and then make a recommendation to the court.
It is a good idea to come into any negotiation, mediation, or custody assessment with a proposed schedule in mind. When the other party proposes something different, listen to it, and consider how that will affect your child first, and then how it will fit with your schedule and expectations. Remember that the court wants to know how willing you are to facilitate a close relationship with the other parent. Except in cases of child abuse, child neglect or spouse abuse, demanding that the other parent not receive parenting time is more likely to hurt your case than get what you want.
At Aviso Law, LLC, our family law attorneys have experience with the Colorado courts and know what to expect in a child custody dispute. We are here to serve you and your family during the divorce process and help you find the allocation of parental responsibility that makes sense for you and your children. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.