Connecticut Child Custody Laws

Find out how child custody is determined and modified in Connecticut.

Connecticut Child Custody

In Connecticut, there is a presumption that joint legal custody is in the best interests of the children.

That is one of many child custody laws you need to understand if you’re going through a divorce in Connecticut. Here’s what else you need to know.

What are the Types of Child Custody in Connecticut?

Physical and legal custody must be determined in each Connecticut child custody case.

Physical Custody

Physical child custody defines the child’s residence. In joint physical custody arrangements, the child spends time with each parent. The exact schedule can vary depending on what the court determines or what the parents agree upon.

Joint physical custody is the most common arrangement. This means the child may spend time living with both parents on terms that are not always equally divided.

In sole and joint physical child custody arrangements, one parent will be designated the “primary custodial parent.” The other parent is called the “noncustodial parent.” Connecticut visitation laws require that the noncustodial parent have at least a minimum amount of visitation with the child unless there are extenuating circumstances (an unfit parent due to abuse, neglect, criminal activity).

Even if one parent is awarded sole legal custody, the other parent will likely receive some sort of visitation rights. Depending on the nature of the parent, these visits may be supervised by a third party and set up to ensure the child is protected at all times.

Legal Custody

Legal child custody defines the parents’ right to make decisions about education, religion, health care, and other major life issues. In rare circumstances, one parent may be granted sole legal child custody to make all decisions on the child’s behalf.

In sole and joint physical custody arrangements, one parent will be designated the “primary custodial parent.”

Child Custody Basics

Temporary Custody Orders

A temporary child custody order is a legal decision by the court to award physical and legal custody of a minor child to an adult, typically while a divorce is in progress.

These may be ordered by the court pendent lite (during the case) or following a granting of an ex parte application (until the hearing on the ex parte application is heard). An ex parte order is only used in extreme situations when imminent physical or psychological danger threatens a child’s physical or emotional safety and welfare.

Family court judges routinely issue temporary orders as an interim step to ensure that sufficient structure, process, and rules are in place that protect the child’s best interests.

Temporary custody orders do not become final orders without a new order from a judge. After a temporary custody order is placed, it lasts until a date stated in the order or until a judge makes a new child custody ruling.

What is a “Birdnesting” Arrangement?

Birdnesting is a type of physical custody that lets children remain in the family home (the house they have always known) and spend time with each parent there. In a birdnesting arrangement, the children live in the family home 100% of the time, and the parents rotate on a schedule.

Birdnesting places many of the practical burdens of divorce on parents as opposed to the children because parents carry the practical burden of visitation transitions instead of the children.

Birdnesting enhances the children’s sense of security and minimizes anxieties and emotional triggers. It also preserves confidence so that kids can better deal with the process of their parent’s separation.

Read More: Connecticut Divorce Guide

How is Child Custody Determined in Connecticut?

Parents who are separating or getting divorced and have children under 18 must participate in a parenting education program within 60 days after filing their case in family court. This program consists of approximately six hours’ worth of classes that teach parents how to help their children adjust to divorce.

Under Connecticut law, both parents have the legal right to seek custody and visitation time with their children. Child custody decisions are gender-neutral, meaning that mothers and fathers have presumed equal rights regarding custody. The courts focus on the best interests of the child, not the gender of the parents.

Either parent can file a custody case and seek physical and legal custody. Before approving a custody agreement, a judge always puts a child’s best interests first.

Parents are encouraged to work together to develop a fair plan that addresses all issues. However, because child custody cases are often contentious, courts become the de facto deciding authority and will create a custody agreement instead.

While a divorce occurs, temporary orders may act as a “test run” on how final custody may play out. Judges will look at the actions and attitudes of both parents during this time, and these actions can influence a final order.

Examples of serious child custody or visitation violations that may rise to a level that a family judge deems are not in the best interest of the child:

  • Frequently missed visitation times or exchanges, creating a harmful pattern
  • Consistent tardiness or early arrivals that disrupt the child’s routine
  • Persistent disturbances that intentionally disrupt visitation
  • Refusal to take the children to the doctors, school, therapy, and other essential appointments
  • Verbal or physical abuse
  • Alcohol or substance abuse around the child
  • Failure to inform the other parent of the child’s whereabouts
  • Taking the child on a vacation or trip without prior approval
  • Taking the child out of the state or out of the country without approval
  • Allowing an unauthorized person to care for the child
  • Attempts to interfere with the relationship between the child and the other parent

If you value your ongoing relationship with your child after a divorce, being a model citizen is best to give you the best chance at the most favorable custody terms.

Mediation Can Help

To help parents get past sticking points, trained and neutral mediators are commonly used to help craft a settlement.

A family law attorney can be beneficial and persuasive in negotiating a private settlement that brings a challenging situation back into alignment and protects parental rights as well as the best interests of a child.

What happens if either parent violates a custody agreement?

A child custody agreement approved by a Connecticut family law judge and entered as a court order is legally binding on the parties involved.

If a parent violates a court-ordered or agreed-upon parenting plan, they risk being held in contempt of court. That parent can face serious consequences. A Motion to Enforce or a Motion for Contempt may be issued to force compliance. In some cases, law enforcement may be needed to ensure the binding document is kept in force.

Read More: Divorce Laws in Connecticut

Factors a Connecticut Judge Must use to Decide Custody

Connecticut child custody laws explicitly state that child custody arrangements are based on the child’s best interests.

Family court judges must consider various factors to reach this standard. However, judges have a lot of discretion in weighing and balancing statutory factors when forming their court orders. There are 16 factors that must be considered:

  • The temperament and developmental needs of the child
  • The capacity and the disposition of the parents to understand and meet the needs of the child
  • Any relevant and material information obtained from the child, including the informed preferences of the child
  • The wishes of the child’s parents as to child custody
  • The past and current interaction and relationship of the child with each parent, the child’s siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the best interests of the child
  • The willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders
  • Any manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents to involve the child in the parents’ dispute
  • The ability of each parent to be actively involved in the life of the child
  • The child’s adjustment to their home, school, and community environments
  • The length of time that the child has lived in a stable and satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity in such environment provided the court may consider favorably a parent who voluntarily leaves the child’s family home pendente lite (during divorce) to alleviate stress in the household;
  • The stability of the child’s existing or proposed residences, or both
  • The mental and physical health of all individuals involved, except that a disability of a proposed custodial parent or other party, in and of itself, shall not be determinative of custody unless the proposed custodial arrangement is not in the best interests of the child
  • The child’s cultural background
  • The effect on the child of the actions of an abuser, if any domestic violence has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual or the child
  • Whether the child or a sibling of the child has been abused or neglected
  • Whether the party satisfactorily completed participation in a parenting education program.

What is a Parenting Plan in Connecticut?

A parenting plan is an important document that spells out the details of your agreement with the other parent and how you will work together for the good of your children.

You and the other parent can create your parenting plan and submit it to the court for approval. Many parents also have an experienced family law attorney prep a parenting plan if they aren’t comfortable doing so.

When parents or attorneys can’t agree, the court will step in and make decisions that will be fair to all parties but ultimately meet the child’s best interests.

What elements must be included in parenting plans under Connecticut law?

Connecticut child custody laws require the following elements in a parenting plan:

  • A schedule that describes the children’s living arrangements (physical custody)
  • A schedule that describes the day-to-day responsibilities of each parent and the practical considerations of the children’s daily lives
  • A listing and description of decision-making authorities of the parents (legal custody including specifics on healthcare, education, religious upbringing, etc.)
  • An inventory of each child’s specific needs over time
  • An outline for dispute resolution
  • Articulation of specific remedies if or when either parent fails to comply with the parenting plan
  • Description of parental actions and de-escalation steps designed to minimize conflicts between parents
  • Who will provide health insurance for the children?
  • Which third parties may or may not visit and communicate with the children?
  • How will the parents communicate with each other and with the children?
  • What is the procedure for overnight transitions and drop-offs?
  • Who gets to attend which school activities?

Modifying a Connecticut Custody Order

Courts may modify a custody order if a “material change in circumstances” has occurred since the original order was issued.

In most cases, a judge will only consider a modification request if at least two years have passed since the last order was entered or a major change urgently affecting the child’s safety or well-being.

A court might modify a recent child custody order in one of the following situations:

  • The primary custodial parent has been imprisoned since the last custody order
  • The child is being physically or sexually abused
  • The child’s mental and physical health has severely deteriorated
  • The child has experienced a sharp decline in their school performance
  • The primary custodial parent has developed a health or medical condition making it impossible to care for the child adequately, or
  • Any other situation negatively impacting the child’s best interests.

If you believe a “material change in circumstances” has occurred, you can file a petition for a Motion for Modification. A hearing will take place, and a family law judge may issue revised orders.

Upon finding a “material change in circumstances” that may warrant a modification, the judge will use the same best interests of the child standard when deciding on the motion to modify.

What is an Educational Support Order?

An Educational Support Order is a court order requiring a parent to provide support for a child or children to attend a higher education institution or a private occupational school for up to four full academic years.

Both parents must participate in the decision as to which institution of higher education or private occupational school the child will attend. If the parents disagree, the court may order to resolve the matter.

While child support orders typically end when a child turns 18 or is emancipated, Connecticut courts may order divorcing parents to support their children until 23 if enrolled in college or a vocational training program. Orders may include paying for tuition, room, board, books, fees, application costs, and medical and dental care.

However, a Connecticut court can only order either parent to contribute towards the education of a child up to the amount of in-state tuition for the University of Connecticut.

To qualify for this order, a child must actively pursue studies commensurate with the child’s vocational goals, constituting at least half the full-time course load determined by that institution or school. A child must also maintain good academic standing and make all academic records available to both parents.

Factors that determine if an educational support order is appropriate are:

  • Assets and financial liabilities of the parents
  • The needs of the child for support to attend school, including the child’s earning capacity
  • The possibility of financial aid from other sources such as grants and loans
  • How reasonable it is to fund higher education, given the child’s academic record and the family’s finances
  • Whether the parents would have funded the child’s education if the family were still intact
  • A child’s demonstrable commitment to higher education
  • Evidence about the school, the child, will attend

Connecticut Child Custody FAQs

What are the laws about moving with a child in or out of state in Connecticut?

Any move that changes the relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent must be approved by the parent or the court if the parents disagree. You cannot independently decide to move to a different part of the state or out of Connecticut until you get approval.

Do grandparents or other third parties have custody rights?

Anyone involved in a child’s life can petition the court for visitation rights in Connecticut.

That can include an aunt, uncle, or grandparents who could petition for visitation rights because the court recognizes they might have had a significant relationship with the child.

However, when this happens, the court will want to see evidence and a relationship history that demonstrates:

  • A parent-like relationship has been established and maintained between the third party and child over time.
  • Denial of visitation to this third party would cause the child real and significant harm.

As with other custody decisions, the courts will use the same standard of the child’s best interest to determine if the grandparents or any third party should have visitation rights.

What impact do a child’s wishes have on custody arrangements?

Connecticut courts may consider a child’s wishes, but the court retains the final say in determining custody issues. What a child wants is just one of several factors that are considered.

A family court judge will give more consideration to an older child’s wishes, but there is no hard and fast rule on what age a child can have their custody preference considered. Instead of other factors, Connecticut case law generally treats 12 as a reasonable age to express a custody preference.

Does one parent still need child support if both parents share custody?

Child support is a separate issue and is decided based on guidelines set by the state. Even when parents share custody, there’s a pretty good chance that one parent will still have to pay support to the other.

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