Family Law

How do Judges Decide Child Custody in Colorado

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Learn about how a judge will divide parental time and responsibilities in Colorado.

Custody and Visitation in Colorado

In 1999, the Colorado legislature did away with the terms “visitation” and “legal custody” and replaced them with “parenting time” and “decision-making responsibilities.” The meaning of the terms is the same. “Parenting time” refers to where the child resides and each parent’s time with his or her child. “Decision-making responsibilities” refers to each parent’s legal right to make medical, educational, or religious decisions on a child’s behalf. Co-parenting is highly encouraged in Colorado. This means, in most circumstances it’s in a child’s best interests for parents to have frequent contact with their children and share decision-making responsibilities.

In situations where there’s been domestic violence or abuse, a court can limit an abusive parent’s contact with the child. A judge may restrict one parent’s parenting time to visits supervised by a third-party. Specifically, an abusive parent may have only supervised visits with the child until a judge determines the child is safe in that parent’s care. While one parent may have primary decision-making responsibilities for the child, either parent can seek emergency medical care for the child.

How Does a Judge Decide Parenting Time in Colorado?

A child’s best interests are central to any custody decision. In Colorado, courts will attempt to maximize custodial time with each parent, unless doing so would not be in a child’s best interests. Specifically, a judge will examine the following to create a parenting time arrangement that best serves a child’s needs:

  • the child’s wishes if of sufficient age and maturity
  • the child’s relationship with each parent
  • the child’s relationship with siblings and any other person who might significantly affect the child’s best interests
  • the child’s adjustment to home, school and community
  • each parent’s mental and physical health
  • each parent’s willingness to foster a relationship between the child and other parent
  • each parent’s history of abuse or domestic violence, if any
  • each parent’s ability to place the child’s needs above his or her own, and
  • the parents’ geographical proximity to one another.

Although each parent’s physical health is relevant to custody, a judge can’t restrict a disabled parent’s parenting time based solely on his or her disability. The overarching concern is a parent’s ability to care for and meet a child’s needs. If a disabled parent is able to adequately support a child’s needs, then the disability is irrelevant to custody.

If a parent convicted of domestic violence, child abuse, or neglect, a court will not grant joint decision-making responsibilities to the convicted parent, unless it’s in the child’s best interests and safe for the child.

Can Parents Create Their Own Custody Agreements?

Parents can submit their own parenting plans or a parenting agreement to the court for review and approval. A parenting agreement must address parenting time and decision-making responsibilities. Additionally, an agreement should also spell out:

  • parenting time schedules for holiday and school vacation
  • each parent’s right to make decisions on the child’s behalf
  • communication between the parents about the child
  • communication between the child and parent who is not exercising parent time
  • child support
  • medical insurance coverage for the child, and
  • any other issues pertaining to the child’s best interests.

A judge will approve a parenting agreement if it addresses all necessary custody issues and serves the child’s best interests. A judge can also appoint a parenting coordinator to help parents implement a parenting plan if both parents agree to the appointment. A “parenting coordinator” is a neutral third-party appointed to help parent resolve disputes between the parents. While a parenting coordinator has power to resolve disagreements, a coordinator can’t modify a court order. Only a judge can make permanent changes to a custody order.

Modifying Custody Orders

A parent can file a motion to modify custody if a certain amount of time has passed since the original custody order and/or if there’s been a material change in circumstances affecting the child’s well-being. A child’s best interests are still central to a modification action. Even if one parent’s circumstances have changed, that doesn’t automatically justify a change in custody. For example, a parent’s remarriage alone isn’t necessarily a reason to adjust custody. However, if a parent’s remarriage requires a move out of state or one parent takes a job requiring constant travel, a court may modify custody.

Custody orders are permanent until a court modifies the order. Parents can’t simply agree to change custody on their own. However, parents can submit a modified custody agreement to the court if a material change in circumstances has occurred and then ask the court to issue a new custody order incorporating their changes.

In some circumstances, a mediator can help you and your child’s other parent reach a new agreement. A judge will likely approve the modified custody agreement as long as it serves the child’s best interests.

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