What Are the Types of Child Custody?
In any Connecticut divorce case involving minor children, child custody will be one of the most important issues. Parents who are not married to one another may file a separate action to establish custody rights. “Custody” refers to the rights and responsibilities that come with parenthood, as well as the rights to establish where a child will live and to spend time with the child. Courts will pay close attention to settlement agreements presented by parents in divorces and custody proceedings. The following is an overview of the different types of custody for a child in Connecticut, and how courts make decisions about these issues.
Types of Child Custody
Connecticut law identifies two types of child custody: physical and legal custody. A court must make a determination as to both, although it has wide discretion as to the details.
Physical vs. Legal Custody
Physical custody refers to the right to enjoy parenting time (visitation) with the child. A child often lives with one parent most of the time and has regular visits with the other parent. That’s the more traditional model, and it’s still very popular. The modern trend is toward some form of shared physical custody, although parenting time need not be split strictly 50/50 to be called that. The logistics of shared physical custody become more difficult if the parents live far away from each other, or in different school districts, but even in these situations creative solutions are possible.
Legal custody consists of the right to make decisions about major issues affecting the child. This type of custody affects parental decisions like where to enroll a child in school and whether they may participate in various extracurricular activities. It also determines how parents may give consent for medical treatment for the child.
Joint legal custody means that both parents share this decision-making power. This usually means that they must consult with one another before making major decisions. Neither parent may make significant decisions for the child on their own. In Connecticut, there is a statutory presumption in favor of joint legal custody to which judges must adhere. As a practical matter parents are rarely shut out of decision-making, but, again, there are many creative options as to the specifics. Settlement agreements and court orders often include provisions for how to address disputes that will almost certainly arise over these kinds of decisions.
What is a “Noncustodial” Parent?
The terms “custodial” and “noncustodial” are outmoded, although still commonly used, mainly as a kind of legal shorthand. If a lawyer or a judge refers to you as the “noncustodial” parent you are not being looked down upon. Never fear, in most cases you are not being deprived of the rights and responsibilities that naturally come with being a parent. Non-custodial just means having physical custody somewhat less of the time than the other parent. As to all forms of custody the court has a strong interest in making sure both parents share meaningfully in parenting time as well as decision-making, because this is in the best interests of the children.
Connecticut allows certain interested parties, such as grandparents, to intervene in a child custody matter to claim custody rights. Such a situation could happen, for example, if both parents are substance abusers, or if a grandparent believes them to be unfit. The third-party seeking custody rights has a significant burden of proving this, including that they already have a parent-like relationship with the child. The law reflects and favors the rights of natural parents to make decisions for their children to the greatest extent possible.
Best Interest of the Child
The most important factor that a court must consider when deciding issues related to child custody is whether a custody arrangement would be in a child’s “best interests.” In fact, courts are resolute in putting the interest of the child ahead of either of the parents, and, as in all family matters, individual judges have a great deal of discretion to decide what is in a child’s best interests, based on the facts presented to them.
Connecticut presumes that it is in a child’s best interest for a parent to have custody, and for the child to have regular contact with both parents. If a parent or other individual wants a court to limit a parent’s custody rights, they must have evidence to show that doing so would be in the child’s best interests.
Factors that Courts Consider When Deciding on Custody
State law provides a list of sixteen factors, in addition to the best interests of the child, for courts to consider when deciding custody issues. These factors apply when the court is ruling on custody after a trial, and when it is considering whether to approve any of the different types of child custody agreements. The factors are:
- The child’s “temperament and developmental needs”;
- Each parent’s ability and willingness to help the child with those needs;
- The child’s “informed preferences” regarding custody;
- The parents’ wishes with regard to custody;
- The child’s relationship with the parents, other family members, and anyone else “who may significantly affect [their] best interests”;
- The extent to which each parent can and will allow and encourage the child to maintain a relationship with the other parent;
- “[A]ny manipulation…or coercive behavior” by a parent directed towards the child in an effort to affect custody rights;
- Each parent’s ability to stay “actively involved” in the child’s life;
- How well the child has adjusted to their home, school, and community;
- How long the child has had a “stable and satisfactory environment” at home, and how much it would benefit the child to maintain that status quo;
- The stability of the child’s current residence, as well as any other potential residences;
- The “mental and physical health” of the child and parents;
- The “cultural background” of the child;
- The impact that any domestic violence involving one or both parents has had on the child;
- Any history of abuse or neglect of the child or a sibling; and
- Whether either or both parents have completed a parenting education program.
Any settlement agreement in a child custody dispute in Connecticut must include a parenting plan. State law requires this plan to include the following:
- A schedule showing when the child will reside with which parent;
- Allocation of decision-making authority for the child’s “health, education and religious upbringing”;
- Procedures for resolving future disputes between the parents;
- Provisions addressing what will happen if a parent “fail[s] to honor their responsibilities under the plan”;
- Provisions for how to adapt the plan “as the child grows and matures”; and
- Agreements on how to minimize exposing the child to parental conflict and encourage the parents to work together for the child’s best interests.
Divorce and other family law disputes can be difficult for both parents and children. The child custody lawyers at Lawrence & Jurkiewicz represent people in Hartford and Litchfield County who may be dealing with custody issues. Please contact us online or at (860) 264-1551 today to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.