Child Custody: What legal standards apply?

By: Kate Haakonsen

The primary statute addressing custody of children as between two parents in the family division of the court is §46b-56 of the Connecticut General Statutes.

The law can be summarized as follows:

PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITY PLANS

The bill requires parental responsibility plans to be submitted to the court if both parents agree to their terms. The objectives of the plan are to set forth each parent's authority and responsibility over the child and to provide for the child's physical care, emotional stability, and changing needs as he grows older. Parenting plans must include provisions:

1. designating where the child will live during the year;

2. allocating decision-making authority to either or both parents for the child's health, education, and religious upbringing;

3. for resolving future disputes that include seeking assistance from mental health professionals or others in reaching a developmentally appropriate resolution, where appropriate;

4. for dealing with (a) a parent's failure to honor his or her responsibilities under the plan and (b) the child's changing needs over time;

5. for minimizing the child's exposure to harmful parental conflict and encouraging the parents in appropriate circumstances to meet their responsibilities through agreements; and

6. for protecting the child's best interests.

Court Approval of Plans

The court must adopt consensual parenting plans and make their terms its custodial and access orders unless it holds a hearing and determines that the plan is not in the child's best interests. The bill authorizes courts to modify their terms in the same manner it currently follows in other divorce matters involving children.

COURT ORDERS AND MODIFICATIONS

The bill requires court custody and support orders to (1) take into consideration each parent's rights and responsibilities, (2) serve the child's best interests, and (3) provide for the active and consistent involvement of both parents according to their abilities and interests.

The plans may include:

1. approval of a parental responsibility plan the parents have agreed to;

2. joint parental responsibility orders, which must include provisions for (a) the child's living arrangements in accordance with the child's and parents' needs, (b) parental consultations, and (c) making major decisions concerning the child's health, education, and parental upbringing;

3. an award of sole custody to one parent with appropriate parenting time for the other parent when sole custody is in the child's best interests; and

4. any other custody arrangements the court determines are in the child's best interests. [end of excerpt]

The benefit of such detailed plans is twofold; that discussing these issues in advance clarifies and parents' expectations and understandings of their responsibilities and that a court is more able to determine if need be when a plan should be changed or enforced.

The law also requires the court to accept the plan agreed to by the parents unless the court finds that it is not in the best interests of the children.

Generally, unless the issue of custody is contested, the Parental Responsibility Plan is required to be filed by the Case Management Date, when the case is about 90 days old.  If the parents have not agreed on a plan by that point, and a custody study or other investigation has not been done, the court may require one or appoint a Guardian ad Litem for the children to speak on their behalf.

Factors the Court May Consider

The law sets forth factors which the court may consider in making or modifying any of custody as provided in the statute. It provides that "the court shall consider the best interests of the child, and in doing so may consider, but shall not be limited to, one or more of the following factors:

(1) The temperament and developmental needs of the child;

(2) the capacity and the disposition of the parents to understand and meet the needs of the child;

(3) any relevant and material information obtained from the child, including the informed preferences of the child;

(4) the wishes of the child's parents as to custody;

(5) 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;

(6) 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;

(7) any manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents in an effort to involve the child in the parents' dispute;

(8) the ability of each parent to be actively involved in the life of the child;

(9) the child's adjustment to his or her home, school and community environments;

(10) 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 in order to alleviate stress in the household;

(11) the stability of the child's existing or proposed residences, or both;

(12) 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;

(13) the child's cultural background;

(14) 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;

(15) whether the child or a sibling of the child has been abused or neglected, as defined respectively in section 46b-120; and

(16) whether the party satisfactorily completed participation in a parenting education program established pursuant to section 46b-69b.

The court is not required to assign any weight to any of the factors that it considers."

The court has the ability to consider any of the factors enumerated in the statute in making custody orders and anything else it deems relevant to the decision. Although the law does not assign any particular weight to any of the factors, the listing of factors in the statute serves as notice to lawyers and parents of evidence which could be persuasive to a court in a custody dispute. Factors 6 and 7 in particular should serve as a warning to warring parents that their bad behavior may not further their goals.