Ultimate Guide to Child Custody in Colorado
I think anyone would agree that child custody and parenting time is the single most important issue to anyone going through a divorce or custody dispute. Because it is so important, you can bet that there is a lot of information on the topic, some of it good, some of it bad.
Read on to learn about (1) how Colorado courts decide custody cases, (2) what factors the court will look at, and (3) several actionable do’s and dont’s for you to follow so that you make no mistakes.
Basics of Child Custody and Parenting Time
Behind divorce, child custody and parenting time is the issue that our clients ask about the most and for good reason. Colorado’s child custody laws are complex and are dependent on a number of factors including your unique situation, the district you are located in, the judge presiding over your case, and a number of other factors. Knowing the basics can help you prepare your case and ensure you are doing the right things to protect your rights.
First, however, Colorado courts do not use the term “custody” anymore. Instead, the term “parental responsibilities” is used to describe what used to be referred to as “physical custody” and “legal custody.” What used to be called “physical custody” is now called “parenting time” and what used to be called “legal custody” is now called “decision making.” Although the terms have been modernized, the vast majority of people still refer to the concept as “custody” and the attorneys who practice this type of law as “child custody attorneys” or “child custody lawyers.” This is important if you are doing research because the statutes addressing this issue in Colorado all refer to the “allocation” of “parental responsibilities,” not custody. See C.R.S. § 14-10-123 and C.R.S. 14-10-124. Learn more about these concepts here. Learn more about the various custody sharing arrangements that are possible here.
The overarching rule in determining parental responsibilities is a “best interests of the child” standard. The best interests of the child statute, C.R.S. § 14-10-124(1.5)(a), states that responsibilities should be determined “in accordance with the best interests of the child giving paramount consideration to the child’s safety and the physical, mental, and emotional conditions and needs of the child[.]” In general, this means that Colorado courts are instructed to take into account just about anything that tends to show something is better or worse for the child. Because of this, if you are wondering whether something will affect your child custody case, the answer is almost always “Yes!”
Factors Affecting Parenting Time
There are numerous factors that the court can look at in determining exactly what is best for the child or children. In fact, courts are instructed to consider “all relevant factors.” The factors include the following.
“The wishes of the parents.” The very first thing the Court will look at is what the parents want for their children.
“The wishes of the child.” If the child is old enough to express an opinion, the Court will take that into account.
“The child’s interaction with other family members such as siblings.” This factor takes into account other siblings such as half-siblings and step-siblings.
“The child’s adjustment to his or her home or school.” Colorado courts focus quite a bit on a child’s schooling. Typically, the Court seeks to provide the child with the best available option for schooling.
“The physical and mental health of the child and the parents.” This factor can include the mental and physical health in the ordinary sense but also in the extraordinary sense in terms of mental health disorders and physical abuse.
“The ability of the parties to encourage the sharing of love, affection, and contact between the child and the other party.” This is one of the most important factors. Courts often look at how well each parent will foster a relationship between the child and the other parent once the parties are divorced.
“Whether a past pattern of involvement of the parties with the child reflects a system of values, time commitment, and mutual support.” This is one of the broader factors and includes things such as relationships with teachers, time spent with the child, and the parents’ general interactions with the child.
“The distance between the parents’ homes as it relates to practical considerations of parenting time.” This factor is fairly straightforward but can become very complex in relocation cases. The type of parenting plan ordered may be affected by the child’s age, whether the child can travel alone, and the financial resources of the parties.
“The ability of each parent to place the child’s needs above their own.” Courts will look at whether a parent is acting selfishly or selflessly. The parent that puts the needs of the child above their own is more likely to get more parenting rights although it is common for both parents to put the needs of the child above their own in an equal manner.
The “best interests of the children” is the legal standard by which parental responsibilities are initially awarded. Many factors are taken into consideration when determining an initial award, such as the history of involvement by each parent, the mental and physical health of the parties, and the ability of the custodial parent to encourage the relationship between the children and the non-custodial parent. Changing parenting time awards is much harder than entering into them the first time, as different standards apply. Many parents enter into optimistic parenting plans that do not work and find that they are stuck with a plan that is very difficult to change later. If you have any questions about this, you are well advised to speak with an attorney who understands child custody issues and concerns.
Factors Affecting Decision Making
When it comes to “decision making” rather than parenting time, courts are instructed to again consider “all relevant factors” and then also consider several more factors, including:
“Evidence that the parties can cooperate and make decisions together.” The more cooperative that the parents are, the more likely the Court is to award joint decision-making. If the parties are unwilling or incapable of making decisions together, the Court may consider awarding decision-making authority to one parent over the other.
“Evidence that there is a past pattern of involvement of the parties with the child reflects a system of values, time commitment, and mutual support that would indicate an ability as mutual decision makers to provide a positive and nourishing relationship with the child.”
“Evidence that a particular decision will promote more frequent or continuing contact between the child and each of the parties.” The Court looks at whether the parties will encourage a relationship with one another. If one party has sole decision-making (or is asking for sole decision-making) then the Court will look at this factor particularly closely.
Generally, decision making is awarded to one or both of the parents, with the statute favoring joint awards. In the event the parents cannot come to an agreement on this, the court will decide which parent will make certain decisions for the children. In general, decision making refers to major decisions and does not relate to day-to-day decision making. Typically, day-to-day decision making is left to the party that has the children at the time.
Tips for Custody Disputes
Build a Workable Relationship with Your Ex
An unwillingness to work your ex may cause a court to dislike you as a parent. This is particularly important in relocation cases or cases where you are asking for the majority of the parenting time or for sole decision-making. If the Court is going to consider giving you the majority of the parenting time, it will want to know that you will not shut the other parent out of the child’s life.
Exercise Your Parenting Rights
If you are awarded parenting time, use it. If the Court feels like you are asking for parenting time that you would not exercise or do not truly want, it may factor that into its decision.
Pay Attention to Optics and Perception
Court cases are all about optics. Whether something is true or not is less important than whether it appears to be true. In cases where the Court will hear your case for a day or less, it is very important to ensure that the optics of your case are handled well. More importantly, make sure you do not “give” your ex any wonderful sound bites for trial. A short recording or instance where you behaved terribly poorly can have a powerful impact.
Learn the Law
Understanding the factors that the Court is going to look at will help you tremendously. Mental health professionals such as Professional Responsibility Evaluators (PREs) and Child and Family Investigators (CFIs) are keenly aware of the law in this area and understand what the Court will be looking for. Educate yourself so that you know how to navigate the process. Although your attorney will guide you each step of the way, many of the most important components of a child custody case happen outside the presence of attorneys and in the presence of the CFI or PRE.
Always Be Prepared
Remember that this is a court case and court cases are won and lost on the evidence. Document everything so that you can provide experts with relevant information, help yourself recollect events more clearly, and reduce the cost of your case. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to drive your point home with your attorney, the experts, and the Court.
Hire the Best Custody Lawyer
When it comes to finances, you can find a way to figure things out. When it comes to custody, that is not true. Hire the best child custody lawyer, make no mistakes, and get the process over with quickly and with the best result possible. Child custody issues are extremely difficult to improve if not done correctly the first time. Although you may consider a less expensive, less experienced attorney down the line for minor issues that happen down the road, it is absolutely paramount that you hire the best attorney possible in the initial child custody action (whether it be part of a divorce or otherwise).
Do Not Disparage Your Ex to the Children
Don’t talk about your ex negatively to your kids. Instead, try to keep your opinions and feelings about your ex to yourself or vent with a close friend. Courts do not take lightly to these sorts of interactions and if it gets particularly bad the Court may reprimand you or otherwise sanction the conduct.
Do Not Arrive Late
Do not arrive for court hearings, parenting time, or expert appointments late. The Court may see your tardiness as an unwillingness to take the process seriously or that you lack commitment. If the Court determines that you take parenting time for granted, they may award that parenting time to your ex instead.
Do Not Regularly Reschedule Parenting Time
In addition to being on time, do not constantly reschedule your parenting time. First, it also makes it look like you are not taking your role as a parent seriously, Second, and more importantly, it makes it appear as if you are asking for parenting time that you do not truly want (i.e. “I want X number of nights but when I have them I always cancel or reschedule them”).
Do Not Drink to Excess or Do Drugs
It probably goes without saying but Colorado courts taking drinking to excess and drug use very seriously, particularly in front or around the children. Indeed, if it becomes extremely bad, the Court may order that your parenting time be supervised.
Do Not Disobey Court Orders
Do not disobey or otherwise disregard court orders and court recommendations. The court that is hearing your case will be watching your conduct throughout the case. If they determine that you are quick to disobey orders then they will take that into account at your trial or hearing. The Court is unlikely to impose the orders that you are requesting when you yourself do not follow their orders.
Do Not Involve Your Children in the Case
Do not involve the children in your case. Colorado courts are particularly swift to sanction this sort of conduct.
Do Not Fabricate Things About Your Ex
Do not ever make up things about your spouse that are not true. If you get caught doing this you will lose your credibility with the Court forever. Moreover, do not embellish or exaggerate what happened either. If you start doing this, the Court will similarly start calling your credibility into question.