Child custody is an important element of divorce law. When going through a divorce, protecting the best interests of a child are always right at the top of the list.

Doing so requires a handful of difficult choices including deciding which parent the child will live with, who gets to make important decisions such as education or health and the approach to visitation for the parent of the child that that does not have physical custody, which refers to the parent who cares for the child on a day-to-day basis.

Making these challenging decisions are key to the well-being of the child, so it’s critical to understand how the child custody process works.

Legal custody

So, what exactly is legal custody? Legal custody is what gives a parent the right to make long-term decisions about raising a child. These include key aspects of a child’s growth and development including education, medical care, dental care and spirituality.

There are two forms of legal custody including joint custody and sole custody. Joint custody, commonly referred to as joint parental responsibilities in Colorado, is when both parents have legal custody of the child. Therefore, both parents handle the interests of the child and share in the decision-making process. Determining how this time is split between parents is based on the circumstances of the case.

The second, less-common form of legal custody is sole custody. Sole custody is awarded when one parent is a risk to the child’s well-being and considered an unfit parent. Physical, sexual or severe emotional abuse of the child by one parent could lead to one parent receiving sole custody.

Additionally, if proven by evidence, domestic violence, addiction or mental health concerns could also lead to sole custody of a child.

Best interests of the child

When you are determining legal custody, the primary goal is to encourage or preserve the happiness and security of the child. It’s generally in the best interest of the child to maintain a close relationship with both parents, but there the unique circumstances of the case that may make this difficult such as living situation.

The best interests of a child are often determined on a case-by-case basis. However, there are a handful of common factors outlined in the list below:

  • Wishes of the child if mature enough to make decisions
  • Wishes of the parents
  • Maintaining family bonds
  • Stable home environment
  • Mental and physical health of the parents
  • Special needs of the child
  • School and community
  • Age and gender of the child
  • Evidence of domestic violence
  • Evidence of drug or alcohol addiction
  • Evidence of emotional abuse

Child custody can be a confusing and difficult subject, but it’s important to understand the basics in order to properly prepare for a dispute.