Connecticut Child Custody Laws

Learn how child custody is determined in Connecticut and more

When parents split up or divorce in Connecticut, a judge will issue custody order to guide the parents’ future relationship. Connecticut’s child custody laws require a judge to base any custody award on a child’s best interests—not necessarily a parent’s wishes.

Alternatively, parents can reach custody agreements on their own or with the help of a mediator. However, the parents’ agreement must be approved by a judge and adequately serve the child’s needs.

Before reaching a custody agreement on your own, you must understand the legal implications of any settlement agreement and associated custody award. Custody orders are binding and a parent who doesn’t follow the order’s terms could face legal consequences.

This article provides an overview of child custody laws in Connecticut. If you still have questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Physical and Legal Custody in Connecticut

Child custody encompasses many facets of child-rearing. In Connecticut, a parent might receive legal custody, but not joint custody of a child. Alternatively, parents may share both physical and legal custody of their children. It’s essential that you understand the legal ramifications of a judge’s custody decision or your own divorce settlement agreement involving custody.

Physical Custody

Connecticut custody laws distinguish between physical and legal custody. A parent with “physical custody” primarily lives with thee child. Parents can share physical custody of their children (also called “joint physical custody”) where the child spends a significant amount of time living at each parent’s home, even if the amount isn’t equal. For example, in a joint physical custody situation, a child may spend four nights per week at one parent’s house and three nights per week at the other parent’s house.

When the child lives primarily with one parent and has minimum visitation with the other parent, this is called a “sole physical custody” arrangement. A Connecticut parent filing for sole custody might argue that sole custody provides more stability and safety for the child. In both sole physical and joint physical custody arrangements, one parent will be designated the “primary custodial parent.”

The custodial parent has the final say on extracurricular, medical, or educational decisions involving the child when the parents can’t agree. 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.

Legal Custody

“Legal custody” means that the parent has the power to make major decisions regarding the child’s welfare on educational, medical and religious matters. There’s a preference for joint legal custody in Connecticut so that both parents can share this decision-making power. Even where one parent is awarded sole physical custody in Connecticut, a judge will often award joint legal custody unless there are reasons it would be impossible or unsafe for the child.

Can Parents Create Their Own Custody Agreements?

In Connecticut, parents can reach their own agreements regarding custody. Parents can prepare an agreement on their own or with the help of a mediator or attorney. However, a court will review the custody agreement to ensure it serves the best interests of the couple’s children. The Connecticut Judicial Branch publishes a document on the best interests of the child standard in Connecticut.

How Do Courts Decide Custody in Connecticut?

A child’s best interests are at the heart of any custody decision. A Connecticut judge will assess several factors to tailor a custody arrangement to a child’s best interests Those factors include:

  • the child’s temperament and needs
  • each parent’s ability to understand and meet the needs of the child
  • each parent’s ability to be actively involved in the child’s life
  • each parent’s willingness to encourage a relationship between the child and other parent
  • the child’s past and current relationship with each parent
  • each parent’s physical and mental health
  • the child’s cultural background
  • the stability of each parent’s residence and child’s ties to the community
  • the parents’ wishes for sole or joint custody, and
  • the child’s wishes for custody if the child is of a sufficient age (see below).

A court can consider all of the factors listed above, as well as any other relevant factor. Courts are not supposed to give certain weight to any particular factor, but should make decisions based on all the evidence available. If you have specific questions about custody in your case, contact a local family law attorney. See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-56 (2020).

Can a Child Decide Which Parent They Want to Live With?

Connecticut courts may take a child’s wishes into consideration, but that doesn’t mean a child will live with the parent he or she chooses. A child’s wishes are just one of many factors considered by courts in a custody case.

A judge will give more weight and consideration to an older child’s wishes than a toddler’s. However, there is no hard and fast rule on what age a child can have his or her custody preference considered. Connecticut custody laws only require that the child is “of sufficient age” to have his or her wishes considered. Connecticut case law generally treats 12 as a reasonable age to express a custody preference.

Modifying Child Custody in Connecticut

Circumstances change over time, and at some point your custody award may need to change too. A parent can’t seek a custody modification on a whim. Instead, there must be a material change in circumstances to justify a change in custody.

Filing a Petition to Modify Custody

Either parent can file to modify a child custody order in Connecticut. A judge will only consider a modification request if at least two years have passed since the last order was entered or there’s been a major change that affects the child’s safety or well-being. Your petition should explain to the court why a custody change is warranted. For example if your custody order is just six months old, a parent’s remarriage or job loss probably isn’t enough to justify a change in custody.

The court will schedule a hearing on your custody modification and your spouse will have the opportunity to respond and argue his or her position. A judge will only grant a custody modification if it serves a child’s best interests.

When Will a Court Modify Custody?

If two years have passed since your Connecticut custody order was issued, a judge will be more lenient in modifying custody. For example, a judge might adjust a custody award if one parent has moved out-of-state, remarried, and the custody order is a few years old.

When dealing with a more recent order, a court will modify custody only when it must to preserve a child’s safety, stability or well-being.

Specifically, a court might modify a recent custody 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 his or her school performance
  • the primary custodial parent has developed a health or medical condition making it impossible to adequately care for the child, or
  • any other situation negatively impacting the child’s best interests.

For more specific information regarding custody in Connecticut, you should consider hiring a local family law attorney.

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