August 5, 1999
CHILD CUSTODY IN MARRIAGE DISSOLUTIONS
By: Lawrence K. Furbish, Assistant Director
You asked for a brief summary of Connecticut's divorce law concerning child custody.
Judges use the "best interests of the child" standard in awarding custody of minor children. If both parents agree, the statutes establish a presumption of joint custody. There is also a presumption that it is in the child's best interest to be in the custody of a parent over a non-parent. But, testimony or other evidence can rebut both of these presumptions.
BEST INTEREST STANDARD
In any family relations case, including dissolutions, the court is authorized to require an investigation of the circumstances of the child and family, and if it orders one, it cannot dispose of the case until the investigation report has been filed (CGS § 46b-6 and 7). The investigation can include the child's parentage and surroundings; his age, habits, and history; the home conditions, habits, and character of his parents; an evaluation of his physical and mental condition; the cause of the marital discord; and the financial ability of the parties to provide support. The court may also appoint counsel for any minor child when it deems it to be in the child's best interest (CGS § 46b-54).
The court can make and modify any order regarding custody, care, support, or visitation (CGS § 46b-56). The court can assign custody to the parents jointly, to either parent, or to a third party "according to its best judgment upon the facts of the case and subject to such conditions and limitations as it deems equitable." In making or modifying such an order the court must "(1) be guided by the best interests of the child, giving consideration to the wishes of the child if the child is of sufficient age and capable of forming an intelligent preference, provided in making the initial order the court may take into consideration the causes for dissolution of the marriage or legal separation if such causes are relevant in determination of the best interest of the child and (2) consider whether the party satisfactorily completed participation in a parenting education program."
JOINT CUSTODY PRESUMPTION
Joint custody is defined as an order awarding legal custody to both parents, providing for joint decision-making by the parents, and requiring that physical custody be shared by the parents so as to ensure the child has continuing contact with both parents (CGS § 46b-56a). The court can award joint legal custody without awarding joint physical custody if the parents agree to it.
The statute establishes a presumption that joint custody is in the child's best interest, if the parents have so agreed. In such a case, if the court declines to enter a joint custody award, it must state in its decision why it denied the joint custody award. If only one parent seeks joint custody, the court can order both parties to submit to conciliation at their own expense with the costs allocated between them based on ability to pay and as determined by the court.
PARENTAL CUSTODY PRESUMPTION
In any custody dispute involving a parent and a non-parent, the law establishes a presumption that it is in the child's best interest to be in a parent's custody (CGS § 46b-56b). A showing that it would be detrimental for the child to be in the parent's custody can rebut this presumption.
The law specifically authorizes interested third parties to file a motion to intervene in a custody dispute (CGS § 46b-57). The court can award full or partial custody to such a party "upon such conditions and limitations as it deems equitable." In such situations the court must appoint an attorney to represent the child's best interest. The same conditions described above that must guide the court in making its decision apply, such as the child's best interest and his wishes, if he is of sufficient age.
CGS § 46b-69b requires the family division of the Judicial Branch to establish a parenting education program to educate people on the impact on children of the restructuring of families. The program must include information on the developmental stages of children, the adjustment of children to parental separation, dispute resolution and conflict management, visitation guidelines, stress reduction for children, and cooperative parenting.
The court must order any party to a family relations dispute to participate in the parenting education program unless: (1) the parties agree, with the court's approval, not to participate; (2) the court determines that participation is not necessary; or (3) the parties select and participate in a comparable parenting education program.