The child’s best interest: An introduction to Connecticut child custody

The child’s best interest is paramount, followed by a preference for the involvement of both parents in the child’s life if appropriate.

Connecticut law puts the child's best interest first when matters of child custody are decided by a court. Connecticut statute also requires that the court issue custody orders that involve both parents actively in the child's life as each is able and interested, so long as the arrangement is in the child's best interest.

Practically speaking, most parents who divorce try to negotiate an agreement that encompasses resolution of all issues, including those concerning custody, decision making, residence and access. If they can agree on custody matters, they have more input over what the future will look like. If a judge decides, the parents cannot control the outcome.

Negotiation of a marital settlement agreement is usually done through the parties' attorneys, but sometimes other negotiation methods are used. For example, mediation uses a neutral third party who facilitates communication and conflict resolution between the divorcing spouses, and collaborative law involves a process of four-way meetings with the parties and their lawyers, including an agreement to either stay out of court or start over with new attorneys if collaboration fails.

Connecticut law provides for a parental responsibility plan that settles custody matters. Such a plan is to delineate each parent's "authority and responsibility" to provide for a child's "physical care and emotional stability," including changes in needs as the child grows. Parental responsibility plans must include, at a minimum:

  • Schedule of physical residence
  • Allocation of decision-making authority to the parents solely or jointly regarding health, education and religion
  • Dispute-resolution plan for the parents
  • Consequences if a parent fails to meet his or her responsibilities
  • Provision for meeting future needs of the child as he or she matures
  • Plans for minimizing the child's exposure to parent conflict, promoting parental agreements and protecting the child's best interests

If parents agree to a parental responsibility plan, the judge is to approve it in a court order, unless the judge finds it not to be in the child's best interest.

If the spouses are not able to reach agreement on custody issues, a state court judge will decide after considering all the evidence. The judge has discretion to order an arrangement that he or she believes in the child's best interest, but there is a presumption that joint custody is appropriate if the parents agree to it. If the judge disagrees with the presumption, he or she may decline to order joint custody.

Joint custody in Connecticut means that both parents have legal custody, meaning joint decision-making power and the sharing of physical custody that gives the child "continuing contact with both." The court may order only joint legal custody without joint physical custody if that is the parent's agreement.

Without parental agreement, the judge may make any custody arrangement that is in the child's best interest. Such arrangements may include joint parental responsibility for providing residential arrangements and decision making or sole custody with one parent with parenting time for the other.

The judge is to be guided by any factor that speaks to the child's best interest. The custody statute provides a list of 16 factors that the judge may consider if he or she feels appropriate under the circumstances.

This article introduces the basic premises of Connecticut custody law, but anyone facing custody issues should seek legal advice from an experienced family lawyer, as custody and access are complex legal and factual matters.

Attorney Nancy Noyes of Engelman, Noyes & Rubin, LLP, in New Haven represents clients in divorce, including those facing child custody issues.