Divorce is a stressful time for several reasons, and it will likely impact the lives of your children. Whenever you’re entering the process of divorce or separation, determining child custody may seem like the most daunting step of the process—after all, as a parent, you only want what’s best for your child. Therefore, when arranging custody, you want the outcome that will be the most favorable to your child’s well-being.
You must work with an experienced family law attorney as you work to determine child custody. A child custody lawyer understands the legal system and how to navigate it, ensuring that you and your child receive the best possible outcome during a child custody dispute.
Under Colorado law, child custody is now officially referred to as “parental responsibilities,” as this is a far more accurate description of the actual goals of the process. Just because a marriage or partnership ends doesn’t mean that either parent is freed from responsibilities relating to their child. Instead, the court must determine just how these responsibilities will be divided between both parties. Also important is determining the extent of each parent’s rights regarding their decisions for their children and how much time they’re allowed to spend with them.
As soon as you and your partner reach a disagreement regarding child custody, it’s important to consult a lawyer. This way, you’ll have an experienced individual to guide you through the process, from beginning to end. Child custody cases can take an emotional toll on those involved, so it’s important not to embark on them alone.
In cases of a divorce involving children, there are two overarching forms of custody agreements: primary and joint responsibility.
When determining the specific parental responsibilities of each party, agreements come in a variety of forms, depending on the unique needs and circumstances of that family. However, at the core of the matter, courts will prioritize the well-being of any children involved.
In the state of Colorado, “sole custody” isn’t entirely a straightforward idea. Colorado recognizes both primary residential and decision-making responsibilities. For the court to grant primary responsibilities to one particular parent, several circumstances could be occurring. This includes:
In an instance where one parent has residential responsibility for the child, the noncustodial parent may still be granted visitation—although this ultimately depends on whether the court decides this is most beneficial to the child. Again, visitation can be supervised or unsupervised, depending on the circumstances.
However, that leaves an important question: What falls under the category of “decision-making” responsibilities, and what duties are considered “residential” responsibilities? The terms “legal custody” and “physical custody” often refer to these categories, respectively. Every child custody or parental responsibility agreement must include clear provisions for both of these aspects of child custody, and parents must follow these provisions carefully. One of the best ways to prevent future custody disputes is to take as much time as is necessary during the initial drafting of the custody agreement to ensure it is as comprehensive and mutually agreeable as possible. In addition, it is critical for both parents to fully understand their rights and responsibilities under the agreement.
Decision-making responsibilities include factors relating to important life decisions. So, if a parent is granted sole decision-making responsibility, they’ll be the only party to have a say in the child’s school, religion, health care, and day-to-day activities.
Residential responsibility describes the physical residence of the child. For example, if a parent is given sole residential responsibility, then the child will reside only with that party. Sometimes, this arrangement can benefit the child by allowing them to remain on a set routine.
Whether the custody agreement includes 90 or more yearly overnight visitations determines if the arrangement involves primary or joint responsibilities. In essence, if one of the child’s parents is granted fewer than 90 overnight visitations each year, then the other parent is considered to hold primary responsibility. On the other hand, if both parents receive over 90 overnight visitations each year, the custody agreement is based on joint responsibility.
In joint responsibility situations, each parent can receive an equal amount of overnight visitations. However, it’s also possible for a different arrangement to be agreed upon, depending on the family circumstances and what will most benefit the child. Joint responsibility arrangements will also stipulate the parents’ communication requirements regarding major decisions for their child. The decision-making responsibilities of both parents may be equal despite them having different levels of physical custody. For example, a joint responsibility plan may allow one parent only about 100 overnights per year, so one parent will have more physical responsibility for the child than the other. However, the parents may need to equally split decision-making and discuss major decisions with one another despite differences in physical custody.
If you’re aiming for a joint custody agreement, you could work with the other parent to sort out the conditions, whether or not you’re working alongside a mediator or a child custody lawyer. The best way for divorcing parents to reach mutually agreeable parental responsibility arrangements is to work cohesively and discuss the terms of their agreement openly and honestly before making any firm legal decisions. Their respective attorneys may then guide them through the process of formalizing their parental responsibility arrangement. While working together may be difficult for some divorcing parents, it is crucial to maintain focus on the child’s best interests and not the personal issues between parents.
In some instances, a parent may receive full custody of their child when the other parent is deemed “unfit.” This involves one parent’s parental rights being terminated, leaving them without responsibility to the child. In the state of Colorado, a variety of factors must be considered in determining whether someone is an unfit parent.
If either parent has presented a danger to the child’s physical or emotional well-being, then they’re likely to be ruled an unfit parent. Or, if one of the parents cannot adequately fulfill the child’s needs, they may also be deemed unfit to parent. Nonetheless, the Colorado courts aren’t going to come to these conclusions through generalizing. Instead, the court requires evidence and specific details as to why the parent is unfit.
A parent could be considered unfit if:
If you’re unable to hire a child custody lawyer due to financial restraints, it’s still possible to seek free or low-cost legal aid. In Colorado, local courts are accumulating new custody self-help resources over time.
The Colorado family law system provides a streamlined alternative to the standard appeal process when parents must adjust their parental responsibility agreements. The court acknowledges that unpredictable life events can make it difficult to maintain a custody order when those events impact a parent’s ability to exercise their parental rights and fulfill their parental responsibilities. A post-judgment modification can allow a parent to make changes to their parental responsibility agreement in an efficient manner.
Filing a petition for modification is a relatively straightforward process, and your attorney can assist you with drafting your petition. The petition must include a description of the desired change to your parental responsibility agreement and your reason for requesting the change. For example, if you are requesting a reduced child support obligation after losing your job, your petition should include proof that you did not voluntarily quit your job and provide a reasonable suggestion for an alternative to your current parental responsibility arrangement.
Once you file your petition for modification, the court sets a hearing to provide you and your coparent the opportunity to discuss the proposed change openly in court. Ultimately, the judge overseeing the modification hearing must decide whether the proposed change suits the child’s best interests better than the existing parental responsibility arrangement. In most cases, the judge will rule on the issue immediately, but some cases may require additional information and further proceedings.
When you and your child’s other parent have a court order outlining your respective parental rights and responsibilities, it is essential to follow these terms and conditions to the letter. While sometimes it may be possible for unpredictable issues to arise that prevent a parent from assuming their parental duties as required by their court order, these issues can usually be handled privately between the parents. For example, a parent may be stuck at work or involved in a car accident and unable to pick up their child at the appointed time. These are examples of understandable and unique situations that do not constitute a conscious and intentional violation of the terms of their parental responsibility order.
Parents should always strive to settle such minor disputes privately, without involving the court. Ultimately, the court would likely deem such disputes frivolous, so parents should focus on communication and understanding regarding these issues. However, if a parent demonstrates a pattern of repeated violations of their custody order, or if they intentionally violate their parental responsibility agreement in any way that poses a threat of harm to their child, the other parent should know their legal options. The parent can take action both to address the situation and prevent it from occurring again.
While a modification petition can help a parent adjust an untenable parental responsibility agreement, contempt proceedings are the best way to ensure the court takes appropriate reaction in response to a parent’s repeated or severe violations of their custody order. If you believe your child’s other parent has engaged in some intentional action that violates the terms of your parental responsibility agreement, you may file contempt proceedings. In particular, if the other parent has done anything to put your child in danger, filing contempt proceedings with the family court is the best way to ensure your child’s continued safety.
Contempt of court is a formal response to an individual’s violation of a lawful court order. A parent may need to file contempt proceedings against their child’s other parent if that parent has engaged in behavior such as:
These are only a few examples of actions that could potentially lead to contempt proceedings. Contempt of court can carry severe consequences for the parent in violation, including loss of their parental responsibilities, compulsory repayment of unpaid child support, and even jail time for extreme violations. While it is always best to try to resolve child custody disputes peacefully through open discussion before moving to more drastic legal measures, you should consult your attorney immediately if you believe your child’s other parent has committed any severe violation of your existing parental responsibility agreement.
If you’re in the Fort Collins, CO, area and are searching for a skilled child custody lawyer, then the experienced attorneys at Johnson Law Group, LLC, are on your side. During child custody disputes, it’s vital to have an expert on your side. Just give us a call at 720-463-4333, or contact us online.