Family Law

How do Judges Decide Child Custody in Connecticut

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Understanding child custody orders in Connecticut.

Overview of Custody in Connecticut

There are two main types of custody—physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the child lives and when the child spends time with each parent. Legal custody gives a parent the right to make medical, legal, educational, religious or other decisions on a child’s behalf. There a various ways for courts to apportion custodial rights. For example, parents can share physical and legal custody (also called “joint custody”), or one parent may have sole physical and legal custody, while the other has a set visitation schedule.

Parents who share physical custody will spend a similar amount of time with the child, although the time split may not be perfectly even. For example, the child may spend 4 nights per week at one parent’s house and 3 nights per week with the other parent.

Parents who share joint legal custody have an equal voice in decisions involving the child. But even when parents share custody, there are times when they won’t be able to make a decision together. If parent’s can’t agree, the custodial parent (as designated by the court) has the final say on decisions involving the child.

How Do Judge in Connecticut Decide Custody?

A child’s emotional and physical needs are at the core of every custody hearing. A judge will examine several factors to determine the custody arrangement that will serve a child’s best interests. Those factors include:

  • the child’s relationship with each parent
  • the child’s temperament and developmental needs
  • each parent’s ability to understand and meet the child’s needs
  • each parent’s willingness to foster a relationship between the child and the other parent
  • each parent’s ability to be actively involved in the child’s life
  • either parent’s manipulative or coercive behavior
  • the child’s adjustment to home, school and community
  • the stability of the child’s current residence
  • the child’s preference, if the child is of a sufficient age and maturity
  • the child’s cultural background
  • any history of domestic violence or abuse, and
  • any other factor relevant to the child’s best interests.

Judges don’t take custody decisions lightly. In especially complex cases, a court may ask a child custody evaluator to interview family members, school officials, and other people familiar with the child in order to make a formal custody recommendation.

Once a court makes a decision, it will issue a custody order, which has far reaching effects. If either parent fails to follow the court's order, the other parent can file an enforcement action. Nevertheless, a parent who does not receive physical or legal custody can’t be denied access to a child’s academic, medical, or health records unless there’s good cause for doing so. Also, a parent who doesn’t receive physical or legal custody is still entitled to regular visitation, typically at least one weeknight per week and every other weekend.

Can Parents Make Their Own Custody Agreements?

An ideal custody situation is when parents can each their own agreements because parents know their child the best. Parents who have a good working relationship can often resolve custody issues on their own, or with the help of a mediator. A mediator can be especially helpful if you’re unsure what provisions are necessary in a custody agreement.

Many local courts also publish online divorce and custody forms that you can follow to ensure that your agreement is complete. At a minimum, a custody settlement should address:

  • physical and legal custody
  • holiday visitation
  • transportation to and from visits
  • child support, extracurricular activities, and medical insurance for the child, and
  • relocation issues.

Parents can submit their written, signed and notarized agreement to the court for approval. If the agreement addresses all necessary custody issues, is reasonable, and serves the child’s best interests, a judge can sign it and turn the agreement into an official court order. A custody order is enforceable and both parents must follow the agreement unless or until it’s modified by the court.

Can a Judge Modify a Custody Order?

It’s normal for your child’s needs to change over time. Certain material and substantial changes to either parent’s circumstances, or the child’s well-being, may justify a change in custody. A judge will modify a custody order if a certain amount of time has passed since the original order, there’s been a material change in circumstances, and a modification would serve the child’s best interests.

Either parent can file a motion to modify custody with the court. A judge will schedule a hearing to decide the motion. At the hearing, a judge will assess the same factors listed above to determine a child’s best interests. A judge may also consider any additional factor that will affect a child’s well-being. One parent’s remarriage, new job, or relocation isn’t typically enough to justify a change in custody. However, one parent’s serious medical issue may justify a custody change as long as it serves the child’s best interests.

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