Connecticut judges evaluating custody disputes in divorce cases must base their decisions on the best interests of the children involved. Although a judge will assess each case individually, Connecticut law begins with the assumption that children benefit from the active involvement of both parents. Many factors are relevant to a child’s best interests and some are set out in the state’s laws. Factors tend to fall into the following basic categories:
A judge may consider the mental and physical health of parents and child, as well as each parent’s ability and willingness to meet a child’s physical needs. A history of child abuse or neglect may lead a judge to suspend visitation or to allow the abusive parent only supervised visitation. A judge may also restrict visitation if there has been domestic violence between the parents or between a parent and another individual. The judge has the authority to order either or both parents to participate in counseling, drug or alcohol screening, or a parenting education program.
The strength of a child’s relationship with each parent, including each parent’s ability and desire to be actively involved in the child’s life and to understand and meet the child’s temperamental and developmental needs, is another important factor. A judge may allow a child who is old enough and mature enough to make intelligent and independent choices to state a preference as to custody.
Courts generally favor custody arrangements that maintain continuity and stability—for example, allowing a child to stay in the same school, to continue important cultural activities, and to preserve relationships with people who are important to the child, such as siblings and extended family. While stability of living arrangements is important, a judge won’t restrict a parent’s custody or visitation time solely because the parent moved out of the family home during the divorce process, provided that the move was an attempt to alleviate household stress.
The extent to which each parent is willing and able to encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent is an important factor. A judge will be less likely to award custody to a parent who tends to involve a child in disputes between the parents, or to interfere with the child’s relationship with the other parent.
Legal custody refers to a parent’s authority to participate in major decisions affecting a child’s welfare. Physical custody means the child’s physical presence with a parent. Joint legal custody means that parents share responsibility for making important decisions, while joint physical custody means that the child has significant contact with both parents. Connecticut law favors both types of joint custody when the parents agree to it, and a judge who doesn’t order joint custody when the parents both want it must provide a written explanation. Parents may agree to joint legal custody without agreeing to joint physical custody, and judges may find that it’s in a child’s best interest to have a primary physical residence, and to spend specific periods of time at the other parent’s home (that would be sole physical custody with reasonable visitation to the other parent). Connecticut law also allows a judge to award visitation to a grandparent or to any other person who is important to the child, if it is in the child’s best interests.
Courts encourage parents, whenever appropriate, to try to reach an agreement about a parenting plan before resorting to court intervention. To that end, parents with custody disputes must file proposed parental responsibility plans with the court. These plans must include a schedule for the child’s physical residence during at least the first year following the divorce and must also include provisions allocating responsibility between the parents for decision-making authority regarding the child’s health, education, and religious upbringing. Plans must also specify a method for resolving futures disputes between parents; designate the consequences of failure to adhere to the plan; address the child’s changing needs due to growth and maturation; and include provisions for minimizing the child's exposure to harmful parental conflict.