Custody Laws In Colorado: Expert Insights

Christopher Sutton
By: Christopher Sutton
PublishedFeb 28, 2023
23 minute read

The end of your marriage or relationship should not threaten the bond between you and your child or children. Unfortunately, estranged parents often struggle to find common ground when it comes to their children. Sometimes the disagreements are legitimate, but often, it’s one side trying to ‘win’ the last major battle of a war-torn relationship or marriage. If you’re in a tug-of-war over your children, you need a firm hold on how the legal system works in these matters. Here are my insider tips and strategies for your Colorado child custody case.

Bottom Line: 

Colorado child custody laws are fair but complex. If you want to protect your rights as a parent, you need an experienced family law attorney in your corner.

Topics to Explore:

Tips and strategies for your child custody case

Our Client Wins Custody 

During a bitter divorce that involved a child, a mother sought our help after her ex-partner refused to return the child or let the mother know the child’s whereabouts.

In this case, we collected evidence to present a clear picture of this mother’s circumstances to the court. It’s incredibly important that the judge who will render final orders, including parental responsibilities, have all the important facts of the case.

As a result of our Family Law Team’s work, this mother received sole decision-making and primary parenting. The father would have limited, supervised visits with the child. Find out how the steps we took in this case could help you get custody. 

Past results afford no guarantee of future results; each matter is different and must be judged on its own merits. Facts are those of an actual Robinson & Henry case.

What is Child Custody? 

Child custody is the right to the care and control of a child, including the ability to make decisions about the child’s upbringing.

However, the term “custody” is out of fashion in Colorado, at least if you’re a lawyer or work in the family court system. Since 1999, the official legal term for custody is “parental responsibilities,” and it describes both primary and joint custody.

For your benefit, I’ll use the words “custody” and “parental responsibilities” interchangeably throughout this legal guide. Understand that they mean the same thing in terms of determining:

  • who the child or children will primarily live with,
  • who makes major decisions, such as those relating to health, religion or education, and
  • what “parenting time” or visitation will be for the non-custodial parent.

Allocating Parental Responsibilities 

Ideally, Colorado courts want parents to negotiate a parenting plan on their own. When that’s not possible, it will take a court proceeding to decide how parental rights and responsibilities will be assigned.

Colorado’s Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) defines this as:

“ … a judgment, decree, or other order of a court providing for the legal or physical custody of a child, allocating parental responsibilities for a child, or providing for visitation or parenting time with respect to a child.” Colorado Revised Statute § 14-13-102(3) (2016). 

Note If the parents are married, Colorado child custody will be determined through a Dissolution of Marriage (DOM) case. If the parents are unmarried, child custody will be determined through an Allocation of Parental Rights (APR) case. The legal standards for making a child custody determination are the same in either type of case.

Colorado’s ‘Best Interests’ Standard 

Every Colorado Allocation of Parental Rights (APR) or Dissolution of Marriage (DOM) proceeding prioritizes the best interests of the child above all competing considerations:

…children have certain rights in the determination of matters relating to parental responsibilities, including: the right to have such determinations based upon the best interests of the child; the right to be emotionally, mentally, and physically safe when in the care of either parent; and the right to reside in and visit in homes that are free of domestic violence and child abuse or neglect.” C.R.S. § 14-10-123.4 (Lexis Advance through all legislation from the 2022 Regular Session and the results of the November 2022 General Election)”C.R.S. § 14-10-123.4

This is well-established law and has been reinforced in case after case over the decades:

  • “The principal issue before the courts is the welfare of the child, and to that welfare the rights and personal desires of the parents are subservient.”Miller v. Miller, Colorado Supreme Court,  (1954)
  • The prime criterion of a custody award in the court’s determination is the welfare of the children.” Rayer v. Rayer, Colorado Court of Appeals, (1973)
  • “The best interests of the child, and not the rights or wishes of either parent, must dictate the outcome of any custody dispute.”  — In re Lester, Colo. App. (1990).
Colorado Prefers Shared Parenting 

Colorado child custody hearings are legally oriented toward the presumption that parents should share legal custody of their child(ren).

“While co-parenting is not appropriate in all circumstances following dissolution of marriage or legal separation, the general assembly finds and declares that, in most circumstances, it is in the best interest of all parties to encourage frequent and continuing contact between each parent and the minor children of the marriage after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage. In order to effectuate this goal when appropriate, the general assembly urges parents to share the rights and responsibilities of child-rearing and to encourage the love, affection, and contact between the children and the parents.”C.R.S. § 14-10-124

Note Every custody proceeding begins with each parent on equal footing. The mother has no legal advantage over the father when courts begin allocating parental responsibilities. — C.R.S § 14-10-124 

Physical and Legal Custody 

In Colorado, parenting time refers to the time when a child is physically present with a parent. It is the same as having “physical custody” or possession of the child.

Decision-making refers to a parent’s authority to make significant decisions about the minor child’s environment, upbringing, and welfare. This includes matters relating to:

  • education
  • legal status
  • extracurricular activities
  • safety
  • medical care
  • religion
  • other major life decisions

In a joint custody and decision-making scenario, the parent with physical possession of the child still shares decision-making with the other parent; however, they are able to make minor, day-to-day decisions for the child without consulting with the other parent.

The only exception occurs if the child has a bona fide medical emergency. — C.R.S. § 14-10-124 

Joint Parenting Challenges 

When parents share decision-making, neither can make an important decision about the child without consulting the other. So, what can you do when the co-parent refuses to comply with a previously agreed-upon decision, fails to engage in making an important decision, or constantly disagrees with your suggestions or decisions?

You can seek relief from the court on grounds that you and your co-parent are not capable of making joint decisions. The court will weigh the facts, always considering what’s in the best interest of the child, and it may award sole decision-making on all issues or perhaps just for certain issues.

The 90-Day Rule 

If one parent has fewer than 90 overnight visits with the child over the course of a year, courts will consider the other parent as the one with primary parent. This distinction does not diminish the non-primary parent’s right to be consulted about major decisions or other rights they hold as a parent.

If both parents manage to have at least 90 overnight visits with the child (or children) in the same year, the state will count that as joint custody.

What “Full Custody” Means in Colorado 

If you tell a Colorado family law attorney that you’re seeking “full custody” of the kids, they’ll assume you want one or more of the following:

  • sole decision-making authority
  • primary residential custody (the other parent receives less than 90 overnights per year with the child), and/or
  • to completely terminate the other party’s parental rights

It’s possible to gain sole decision-making authority or primary residential custody based on facts weighing in your favor. However, a court will not terminate the other party’s parental rights without evidence of egregiously bad behavior that would put the children in significant danger or that the other parent has abandoned the children for a prolonged period.

Therefore, it’s best to focus on the factors the court will weigh and the things you can do to help tip the scales in your favor.

Key Factors in Colorado Child Custody Cases

I can tell you that in my experience, settlement always benefits clients by saving them time, money, and stress. Settlement also makes a client’s odds of successful, peaceful co-parenting going forward far more likely. Let’s assume you cannot negotiate a satisfying co-parenting plan with the other parent and court-ordered mediation hasn’t worked either. Now your matter comes before a family court judge.

At this point, it’s important to know what the court looks for when it decides child custody. Most of the information and variables the judge will consider fall under the nine best interests factors laid out in Colorado child custody law.

While a judge will look at all of the following factors, he or she isn’t required to make a separate finding on each one of them to formulate a final ruling. — In re Marriage of Jaramillo, 37 Colo. App. 171, 543 P.2d 1281 (1975)

One: The Parents’ Wishes

It’s well established that the court’s priority is the child’s best interest. However, a parent’s opinion still counts. Not only will the court consider what the parent wants, but why they want it. Let’s look at a couple of scenarios:

A mother is pushing for limited parenting time for the father. She claims her ex has largely been an absent dad. But the father says this is an effort to punish him for an extramarital affair.

A father is petitioning for more time with his children. He says he wants to be more involved in their lives. The mother, however, insists her ex just want to maintain control over her.

A judge will be tasked to discern when a parent’s wishes are self-serving and when they are legitimately in the child’s best interest.

Two: The Child’s Wishes 

The more mature the child, the more weight will be given to their wishes. Age is not necessarily the main factor, however, as long as the child is “sufficiently mature to express reasoned and independent preference” about the parenting schedule. — C.R.S. § 14-10-124(1.5)(a)(II)

For example, a six-year-old frightened by witnessing one parent’s past drug abuse or mental health breakdown could be considered mature enough to express their wishes. Furthermore, a 16-year-old preferring to be with a parent who is rarely home and has never set firm rules may not be deemed mature enough.

Communicating the Child’s Wishes to the Court 

Children almost never testify in open court in custody cases. More likely, the child will talk one-on-one with a court-appointed expert. The expert will then prepare a written report and possibly testify about the child’s maturity and expressed wishes.

Three: Existing Family Relationships 

Parents should play the biggest role in the lives of their minor children. However, courts also consider how a child interacts with each parent, their siblings (including half- and step-siblings), and extended family members.

In determining the child’s relationship to other important parties, the court will want evidence of the following, among other things:

  • who the child spends time with;
  • activities shared by the child and the parents, siblings, and others;
  • whether the child doesn’t get along or fights with anyone;
  • who the child seeks out for comfort when hurt, sick, or afraid;
  • who the child regularly shares information with;
  • whether any grandparents, cousins, aunts, or uncles are closely involved in the child’s life, and
  • whether either parent’s household will have half- or step-siblings

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 14-10-124 (1.5) (a) (III)

Since every family is unique, these family relationships can overlap in challenging ways. Here is an example:

Mother With Step-Siblings

Mother has two daughters from another relationship. Child is younger than her step-siblings and they serve as very positive role models for the child. Mother has a parenting time schedule for her older daughters where she has them every other week. The court in this scenario would consider matching the child’s parenting schedule with that of her older siblings due to the benefits to the child.

Four: The Child’s Adjustment to Home, School, and Community 

Could the child benefit from a change of environment, or is he or she thriving at their current school/daycare center and neighborhood?

A significant factor in a child’s general well-being is his or her school life. The friends, classmates, and familiar teachers a child interacts with on a daily basis provide valuable stability and support. When a child is thriving in their current environment, a judge will be reluctant to order it changed.

On the other hand, a court could favor change if the child is attending a bad school, experiencing bullying, or is at risk of falling in with a bad crowd.

Other Home and Adjustment Factors 

These can include, but are not limited to:

  • whether the child is more emotionally bonded with one parent
  • the child’s age and length of time at their current home
  • how frequently the children have moved in the past
  • the layout and condition of the current and/or proposed new home
  • whether one parent will remain in the marital home
  • whether the child has special needs that are being met at their current school or daycare

Five: Health of the Parents and Child 

The court considers what to do if the child, or one of the parents, has physical or mental health limitations. While Colorado child custody law clearly states that “a disability alone shall not be a basis to deny or restrict parenting time,” a judge can examine whether poor physical or mental health affects a parent’s ability to properly care for the child.

Serious allegations of mental illness should be backed up by a formal diagnosis or through other evidence of the illness.

I should note that a parent doesn’t necessarily have to have a diagnosed mental health disorder for the court to consider him or her “unstable.” A judge could consider evidence of suicidal ideations, instability at home or in the workplace, irrational decision-making, and a variety of other forms of evidence.

Child’s Age a Factor 

A parent with physical disabilities may be unable to care for a younger child such as an infant or toddler. However, the same parent would have no trouble caring for an older child. Conversely, a parent might not be emotionally equipped to handle their teenager but will have no issues caring for a toddler.

Physical and Mental Health of the Child 

If a child has physical or mental challenges, a court will want to make sure the parenting plan adequately meets the child’s needs. The court should know if one parent has shown more willingness and aptitude caring for the special needs child or if one parent has additional resources to assist the child such as family members who can help or accommodations in their residence to assist with a physical limitation.

Six: Encouraging Parent-Child Bonding 

This factor is extra important. The court wants each parent to support a healthy and loving relationship between their child and the co-parent. This can be difficult when hard feelings remain after the divorce or if there are legitimate concerns about the other parent. However, any attempts to alienate the child from the other parent will only hurt your chances in a custody proceeding.

There are a number of ways to demonstrate your ability to encourage a close bond between your child and their other parent. I recommend you begin by:

  • encouraging and setting up periodic phone calls or online video chats between your child and the other parent;
  • helping the child choose a birthday or Christmas gift for the other parent;
  • refraining from making derogatory statements about the other parent when your child is with you, and
  • making every effort to preserve the other parent’s time with your child.
Domestic Violence Exception 

If you’re withholding contact with the other parent to protect the child from suffering or witnessing domestic violence, abuse, or neglect, then the court could determine you acted reasonably, if the other parent has an established history of such behavior. C.R.S. § 14-10-124(1.5)(a)(vi)

Seven: Involvement of Each Parent

This is one of the broader factors in a parental responsibilities proceeding. Judges will examine the “pattern of involvement” each parent has shown with the child or children. This includes the amount and quality of time each parent spends interacting with the child(ren).

Essentially, the court will want to determine who the child’s primary caretaker was  during the marriage, considering factors such as:

  • who chose the child’s health care providers;
  • who took care of the child when he or she was ill;
  • which parent attended most school conferences and events;
  • who physically purchased the child’s clothes and kept them clean;
  • which parent arranged safe, appropriate daycare or babysitting;
  • who helped the child with homework and took them to extracurriculars;
  • who comforted the child when they were scared, sad, or worried; and
  • which parent established limits and disciplined the child.
Hands-On Versus Indirect Involvement 

The court will make a distinction between whether one parent’s lack of hands-on involvement was due to a demanding work schedule or if it was willful indifference.

For example, a mother can provide evidence that she provided most of the hands-on care: took the children to school, made doctor’s appointments, and bandaged scraped knees. A father can stipulate to the mother’s providing direct care but still show he remained involved by: staying up-to-speed about the child’s grades, providing input about extracurricular activity choices, attending school events and parent-teacher meetings.

Eight: Where Each Parent Will Live 

A practical consideration for determining parenting time 𑁋 or visitation 𑁋 after the divorce is the distance between the parents’ homes.

For example, if each parent plans to live in the same school district, a court has more flexibility when forming a parenting plan. However, an every-other-weekend parenting time schedule could make more sense if the other parent moves farther away and cannot get the children to school without a lengthy commute.

This factor is fairly straightforward, but it can become complex if one parent hopes to relocate with the child(ren) after the divorce.

Nine: Can the Parents Put the Child First? 

This is perhaps the most important factor, in my opinion. The court wants evidence that each parent can put the needs of their child over their own wishes. The best evidence for this commitment comes from demonstrating a willingness and ability to communicate with the other parent about the child’s needs and circumstances.

This can be tricky when a high level of animosity still exists between the parents. For example, if you are barraged by the other parent sending inflammatory text messages and accusations, can you take the higher road and remain calm and focused on your child’s needs? If you would benefit from moving to New York for a job opportunity, but your child would be best off remaining in Colorado, can you put your child’s best interests first by conceding that the other parent should be primary parent or forgoing your move?

An Example of Putting Child’s Need First 

The children live with their father in the marital home. The mother, who has moved an hour away, gets parenting time every other weekend. The father rearranged his work schedule so he works Saturdays when the children are with their mother. This allows him to be home when the children get off the school bus. The father is sacrificing two Saturdays a month for his children’s safety when he could be enjoying his time off.

Examples of Failing to Put Child’s Needs First 

Example #1- A mother finds out the musical artist she and her daughter admire is holding a concert in their city, but the concert is during the father’s parenting time. Practicing good co-parenting, the mother reaches out to her ex before she buys tickets to see if he minds giving up that day so she and their daughter can attend the show. Even though the father admits to having no concrete plans on that day, he refuses to let his ex have their daughter for the concert, even after mother offers him make-up parenting time.

Example #2- The father left home during divorce proceedings and moved in with his new romantic partner. She doesn’t like having the children over. On occasion, she has forced the kids to stay outside in the cold until their father gets home from work because she “has a migraine and can’t handle noisy kids today.” The father has failed to address his girlfriend’s cruelty toward the kids, showing his inability to put their best interests first.

Why You Need a Colorado Child Custody Lawyer 

If you and the other parent cannot agree on a parenting plan, you should consider hiring a divorce lawyer with considerable experience in child custody matters.

In fact, even if you are entering mediation and feeling fairly optimistic about the possibility of working out some arrangement, you’d do better with an attorney by your side. Here’s why:

Child Custody Matters Can Get Tedious 

Courts allocate parenting time and decision-making authority based on what they determine is in the child’s best interests. We’ve already brushed upon the nine factors courts will look at when making custody considerations. The key word is “brushed.”

Each of the nine factors can get far more complex than what’s been discussed here. An experienced attorney not only understands these factors in considerable depth but can strategically apply them to your specific situation. This will allow you to narrow or broaden your expectations as you proceed. An experienced attorney will be able to advise you of what to expect from your judge if your case proceeds to hearing, which may well impact your decision on whether to settle or not. Most importantly, an experienced attorney will be able to help you craft a settlement that best suits you and your family’s needs, addressing all the important issues that are often overlooked by people representing themselves.

Your Attorney Can Strengthen Your Story 

You have strong feelings when it comes to who should make decisions for your children. However, it’s wishful thinking to assume your opinions alone will carry the argument. Most people assume they will be able to talk to the judge and the judge will see it entirely their way. In reality, people who have concrete evidence to back up their positions and concerns most often carry the day.

Attorneys have experience developing and presenting cases like yours in court. Your attorney will take your concerns, requests, and any evidence you can provide to create a persuasive narrative based on the applicable laws. They will help you decide what witnesses or experts are needed to bolster your case and they will help you feel as calm and confident as you can be before you ever take the stand in court.

Your Lawyer is Focused on the Details 

As a parent going through a divorce, you’re understandably concerned with big-picture questions: Who will keep the house? Who will pay child support? Will the kids live with me, and, if not, how much parenting time can I get?

While your lawyer will help you sort out all of those issues, he or she is also there to make sure the fine details are addressed before they grow into bigger issues.

For example, how to sort out disagreements over transportation or school extracurricular activities, or how to definite what holiday parenting time actually means. For example, a provision that “mother gets the children for Thanksgiving,” does that mean the day of Thanksgiving or the school year holiday? If it means only the day, when does mother receive the child from father? That morning? Early afternoon? Your lawyer will ensure that these details are all spelled out and also form important strategies that might benefit you given the issues you face in your case.

Remember the Paperwork 

Many forms and motions connected to child custody cases are complicated. Some could take hours of research if you tried to fill them out yourself. Mistakes can hurt your case and cost you valuable time with your child, and they can tie matters up even longer.

Your attorney has years of experience with the paperwork and can make sure it is filled out promptly and correctly.

Custody Strategies Your Attorney Can Help With 

You gain more than professional representation by retaining an experienced family law attorney to handle your divorce and parenting time matters. You get a literal child custody coach.

Most people in the midst of a divorce could use a bit of coaching. While a court evaluates their behavior during allocation of parental rights proceedings, many parents make dumb mistakes that ultimately damage their custody claims.

Remember, the time you’ll get to spend with your children is at stake. Know the Don’ts and Do’s of how to conduct yourself during this period. 

How to Self-Sabotage Your Custody Case 

Alienate the Other Parent 

Colorado law prefers that both parents are active and involved in their child’s life. Any attempt to diminish your child’s relationship with their other parent will reflect poorly on you unless you have valid safety concerns.

  • Do not bad-mouth, ridicule, or harshly criticize the other parent when you are with your child, and don’t allow third parties to do so in your child’s presence.
  • Do not involve your child in discussions about court or parenting arrangements.
  • Do not force your child to choose between you and their other parent.

A court will interpret this behavior as you trying to promote your own interests, having little concern for your child’s best interests.

Respect the other parent’s parenting time. If a court has given them visitation rights, you must abide by them. If you don’t, the other parent could ask the court to hold you in contempt, which would only create one more legal hurdle and increased costs in your custody case.

Have Verbal Confrontations with the Parent 

Altercations in front of the child(ren) reflect poorly on parents, especially on the one who initiates them. So, when you meet the other parent, if you have a hurtful insult dancing on the end of your tongue, keep it there. You could end up getting slapped with an injunction or restraining order in return. If they initiate, be the bigger party, conduct yourself calmly, and insist any argument be held outside of the presence of the child.

If your divorce has been acrimonious, mentally prepare yourself before any interactions with the other parent or find ways to de-escalate harsh communications. Our attorneys have many tools and strategies to help you with this difficult task.

Damage Your Ex’s Property 

This should go without saying. However, with emotions running high, logic can slip out of reach. Many spouses going through divorce can feel tempted to vandalize their ex’s car, smash equipment, or get rid of valuable items left in the home after separation.

These items legally belong to the other parent, and property damage is a criminal offense in Colorado. If you are still married, it is even worse as you are damaging your OWN property, since it doesn’t matter who uses the property or who the property is titled to. If it was acquired during the marriage, it’s likely both of you unless it falls under a legal exception.

Expose the Child to Your New Partner 

It’s best not to date during divorce proceedings. However, if you do, be careful how you go about it.

While the divorce or custody case is pending, focus on creating a stable and normal environment for your children as well as maintaining and protecting the relationship you have with them.

From my experience, I do not recommend introducing your children to a new partner without discussing it with your attorney first because the court could see this as inappropriate. Judges will not appreciate the impact this behavior might have on your little ones.

Remove the Child from Regular Activities 

Any activity that preserves normalcy in your child’s life during the upheaval of divorce should be maintained if it’s financially possible.

School events, extracurricular sports, hobbies, and time with friends help a child focus on what makes him or her happy. If you remove the child from these things, especially scheduled activities they looked forward to, you’re not only hurting them, but you could be raising a red flag against your custody argument.

Ruin Visitation for the Other Parent 

You should absolutely encourage your child to enjoy visitation days with the other parent. Don’t ask your little one to spy on the other parent or to relay messages to the other parent. Similarly, do not ask your child to keep secrets about what happens in your home.

Do not grill your child for information about the other parent’s life. Don’t demand the child leave their toys at home with you just because you paid for them. Don’t call off the other parent’s parenting time just because the child is sick without reaching an agreement with the other parent in advance. The other parent is capable of caring for the child when they are ill. And definitely DO NOT disparage the other parent or blame the other parent for things you can no longer do with your child.

Things You Should Do During Custody Proceedings 

Be an Involved, Active Parent 

We understand divorce is stressful, and it’s not easy to be at your best on a daily basis. It can be easy to miss an event, sleep in, or, worst of all, avoid an opportunity to see your child if you fear running into the other parent. However, please try to make every effort you can.

A court is less likely to believe you were an active parent during the marriage if you can’t maintain involvement during divorce proceedings. If you haven’t been involved in the past, now is the time!

Let your attorney know if you believe the other parent is trying to prevent you from participating in your child’s life but don’t fight with the other parent. They can file for temporary orders, which will regulate and enforce parenting time until the divorce is final, or for contempt if there are already court orders the other parent is violating.

Be Considerate and Punctual 

If you are picking up your child, pick up the child on time. Return the child on time. If something comes up that could cause you to be late, call or send a text. Be considerate and responsible. If the other parent is consistently late, document that and try to find a solution to the problem.

If the other parent is picking up your child, have them ready on time when the other parent arrives to pick them up. Be at home, or at the designated meeting place, when the other parent brings the child back. Make sure to pass on important information the other parent should know, for example, if the child has been sick, or has important homework from school. If the other parent is unwilling to fix the problem, that can be used against them in court.

If your exchanges of your child with the other parent become consistently hostile, don’t sink to the other parent’s level. Remain calm and professional and remind the other parent that it’s unhealthy to fight in front of your child. Our experienced attorneys can assist you with addressing this issue and developing a safety plan if needed.

Gather and Preserve All Evidence 

The amount of quality evidence you provide the court is directly related to your chance of a successful outcome. Your attorney can help you gather certain kinds of evidence, however, if you haven’t already, start preserving things like:

  • calendars,
  • text messages and emails,
  • voicemail messages,
  • notes you’ve taken relating to your case or custody negotiations,
  • photographs and video recordings
  • medical records,
  • school reports and grade cards,
  • … and more

Note: Color-coded calendars are an excellent way to visually document important information such as the days when either parent has had the kids, days when one parent denied visitation, and other court-related matters. Using an app like Talking Parents can make your evidence collection far easier.

The Costs of a Divorce and Custody Dispute

Getting divorced is by no means an inexpensive process. Filing fees (for legal separation, then dissolution of marriage) and court costs alone add up to an average of $880, in 2023. That doesn’t count the average cost of a divorce lawyer, which will be quite a bit more. The more contentious your divorce, the more you’re likely to spend fighting for the result you want.

Unfortunately, the most contentious divorces involve child custody disputes.

Specific Costs in a Custody Dispute Process

If you and the other parent cannot agree on a parenting plan, then a court must decide how to divide parental responsibilities. To ask the court to consider your case, you must file a Petition for Allocation of Parental Responsibilities. Filing Fee: $222.

You and the other parent will likely be ordered to the negotiating table for mediation unless you are able to resolve your dispute before the court’s deadline to mediate.

Colorado Child Custody Mediation 

The objective of mediation is to give the divorcing parents an opportunity, in a neutral setting, to come to an arrangement that’s in the best interests of their child(ren).

You and the other parent may choose your mediator, or have one provided by the Office of Dispute Resolution (ODR). However, an ODR-provided mediator will only be available for two hours. That might not be long enough to find common ground in a highly contentious dispute.

Mediators are not a free service. They charge by the hour, but the financial burden can be shared between the parents. Cost: $200 to $350 per hour.

Strictly Private 

The entire mediation process is totally confidential until the two parties sign an agreement. Each parent can have their attorney present for the mediation process.

In mediation you will be able to resolve your entire case or part of your case, you can also settle your issues on a temporary basis or come to a final agreement. Temporary agreements may be further altered by the court or by agreement of the parents.

Opting Out of Mediation 

There are two ways to opt out of court-ordered mediation and go straight to allocation of parental responsibilities proceedings:

  1. Parents tell the court they are not willing to participate in mediation because of past domestic physical or psychological abuse, or
  2. The partners file a formal request within five days of the judge’s order, asking to be exempted for “compelling reasons,” including the fact they tried mediation already and could not agree on a parenting arrangement.

—  Pearson v. District Court, 18th Jud. Dist., 924 P.2d 512 (Colo. 1996).

The Costs of Proceeding to Trial 

Let’s suppose one-on-one negotiations failed. Mediation hit a wall. Now an allocation of parental responsibilities hearing looms ahead. The court will make the decisions instead of the parents.

The biggest chunk of costs related to child custody disputes come from attorney’s fees, which we have not yet addressed. However, other considerations in the case will still impact how costly the total process will be. Typically, these costs will include:

A Court-Appointed Investigator 

Known outside Colorado as a “custody evaluation,” this is an objective, court-ordered investigation into each party’s parental fitness. The parents can request the apportionment of a licensed professional to determine how each parent is best able to meet their child’s needs in the short and long term. The court can also appoint a professional without a request of the parents if the court deems an investigation necessary. The professional would either be a Child and Family Investigator (CFI) or a Parental Responsibilities Evaluator (PRE).

CFI and PRE 

The Child and Family Investigator and Parental Responsibilities Evaluator play similar roles in APR proceedings, however, the PRE is also a licensed mental health provider. A PRE can perform mental health testing on one or both of the parents, or on a child to determine if there has been an undiagnosed mental illness. A PRE can also refer parents for substance abuse testing.

Whichever one the court appoints, the evaluator will spend six to eight weeks conducting interviews with each party, teachers, the children, other family members, and observing parenting time sessions with each parent and their minor child or children. The PRE will then propose a parenting plan based on their findings. Cost: $2750 for the CFI, or from $5000 to $40,000 for the PRE..

A Guardian ad litem 

In some cases, the court may appoint a legal representative to look out for the child’s best interests during the custody hearings. This person, called a Child Legal Representative (CLR), advocates for the best interests of the child or children in a proceeding and can conduct their own investigations. — C.R.S. § 14-10-116  Cost: Varies.

Other Expert Witnesses and Specialists 

Some cases will require testimony and written reports from certain experts, such as a behavioral specialist, physician or child psychologist. These will entail professional observations, interviews, tests, and testimony to back up their testimony. Cost: $1500 to $5000, or more.

Parenting Class 

All parties with minor children seeking an initial divorce, legal separation, or allocation of parental responsibility must take a parenting class. If the parents have not already enrolled in such a class, the allocation of personal responsibilities judge will order them to do so.

These sessions, which can be attended in person or online, help parents understand how best to fulfill their parental responsibilities after divorce. The parties are also instructed on ways to manage disruption to their children’s lives. Cost: $40 to $140 per person.

The Cost of a Child Custody Lawyer 

So, how much will it cost to have a good attorney on your side? That depends on a number of factors; primarily, the contentiousness and difficulty of your case.

Other variables include:

  • The lawyer’s expertise, competence, and professional standing
  • The time spent diligently working on your case
  • Assets at issue, and
  • The complexity of your child custody matter
Hourly Rates 

Colorado child custody attorneys usually decide on an hourly rate or a flat fee, depending on the nature of your case. A lawyer may charge one hourly rate for research and filing motions and a higher rate to appear in court.  Cost: $250 to $450 per hour.

Unbundled Representation 

Unbundled services may be a good fit for you if you just need a helping hand and can manage the case yourself, or if the cost of full representation will simply be too expensive. These services might include help with preparing important legal forms, assistance with negotiations or drafting an agreement. Cost: $250 to $450 per hour

Retainer Fees 

A retainer is a down payment on continuing legal services that you’ll need during the course of your case. It’s an up-front deposit into an attorney’s or law firm’s trust account. The lawyer, or the firm, then deducts fees every time work is done on your case.

It’s important to note that the retainer is refillable. That means, if your initial retainer is depleted, you have to add more funds to your retainer for your attorney to continue work on your case. A retainer is not a representation that your case will be completed for the cost of the retainer, it’s merely the cost to commence your case.

A retainer deposit is legally still your money until your lawyer or firm earns it. In fact, if you and your partner call off the divorce and decide to reconcile, the firm will refund you the unused retainer balance. Cost: Your retainer will depend on the issues you are currently facing; however, most cases without pressing needs, such as an upcoming hearing, typically only require a retainer between $2500 to $3000.

Cutting Attorney Costs 

People outside the legal community tend to assume that a one-stop shop attorney, working in a quaint office across the street from the courthouse will cost less than a more established attorney from a larger firm. This is a misconception.

If you have a contentious custody case, you need seasoned counsel that doesn’t dabble in family law and who has the resources of a large firm to draw upon. Experience brings efficiency, and efficiency reduces costs. Furthermore, a larger firm can actually cost less due to teams of lawyers and paralegals who can process motions and paperwork more quickly and accurately.

Let an Attorney Help 

If you have questions about allocation of parental responsibilities, parenting time, mediation, or any family law matter, give us a call. Our family law attorneys can discuss your case, rights, and options. Call 303-688-0944 to begin a case assessment.

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