It’s healthy for children to form attachments to adults who are not their biological parents, such as stepparents. Unfortunately, sometimes the relationship breaks down between a child’s biological parent and their other caregivers.
In Colorado, an individual who is not your child’s biological parent can request custody of your child under the right legal conditions.
This article explains some practical and legal steps you can take if your teen wants to live with an ex who is not their parent. We’ll also touch on how a Colorado child custody attorney can help.
The courts give biological parents the deference they deserve when it comes to this type of custody issue. However, it’s important to know that non-biological parents can have rights, too. If your teen wants to live with an ex who isn’t their biological parent, you’ll want to find out your legal rights and options.
What Colorado Law Says About Third-Party Nonparents
Colorado child custody law allows for several circumstances under which non-biological parents may be entitled to certain parental rights over a child. A nonparent who meets these requirements is considered a psychological parent in the eyes of the court.
There are two main bases under which your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend may have legal standing to seek custody of your child:
- The child is not currently being physically cared for by you or their other biological parent.
- Your ex has had physical care of your child for at least 182 days. If your ex no longer has physical care of your child, he or she must petition the court for custody rights within 182 days of ending that physical care.
Defining Physical Care
Colorado courts have consistently interpreted the term “physical care” literally, meaning the actual, physical possession of a child.
This definition considers the amount of time a child has spent in the actual, physical possession of a non-parent, as well as the psychological bonds non-parents develop with children who have been in their care for a substantial amount of time. Cook v. Cook (In re E.K.), 2022 CO 34, ¶ 1, 511 P.3d 605
How Colorado Courts Determine Nonparent Standing
To determine whether a nonparent has standing in a child custody case, Colorado courts consider the nature, frequency, and duration of the child’s contact with both the nonparent and parents.
The Colorado Supreme Court recently held that “neither exclusive physical care nor parental consent is required for a nonparent to establish standing.” Cook v. Cook (In re E.K.), 2022 CO 34, ¶ 1, 511 P.3d 605
Let’s take a look at this case.
A Colorado Stepparent Rights Case
Background: Cook v. Cook
In August 2021, S.C. petitioned an Arapahoe County district court to establish his rights as a psychological parent to his former stepdaughter.
S.C. was married to the girl’s mother, H.C., for eight years. During that time, he frequently took her to and from school, helped her with homework, enrolled her in sports, attended her parent-teacher conferences, arranged for her to meet with academic tutors, paid for her daily expenses, and took her on various family vacations.
S.C. and H.C. separated in early 2021. While H.C. moved out of their shared home, her daughter continued to exclusively live with S.C. for several months while finishing out the school year.
In July 2021, the girl’s biological father, M.K., removed her from S.C.’s care. S.C. filed his petition that same month.
Parents File Motion to Dismiss
Subsequently, the girl’s biological parents filed a joint motion to dismiss S.C.’s petition. They argued that S.C. had no standing because his relationship with their daughter “was only incidental to his marriage to Mother.” He had never acquired exclusive physical care of her during the required 182-day period and therefore could not be considered a psychological parent.
Court Rules In Parents’ Favor
The district court ruled that:
it could not “find that Stepfather had physical care of [E.K.,] as Mother made decisions for [E.K.] and provided for her daily care. Stepfather’s role was that as supportive to Mother, not as a primary care provider.”
Cook v. Cook (In re E.K.), 2022 CO 34, ¶ 6, 511 P.3d 605
Being a supportive parent, the district court ruled, was not sufficient grounds to obtain standing to seek parental rights. Therefore, it dismissed S.C.’s petition.
The Case Gets a Second Look
S.C. appealed, and the case landed in front of the Colorado Supreme Court. The state’s highest court determined that Colorado law did not require a nonparent to have exclusive physical care over the child. Therefore, S.C. had standing to seek parental rights:
“We conclude that, under the circumstances of this case… Stepfather was acting more like a co-parent with Mother than a temporary caregiver. Stepfather lived in the same house with E.K. for eight years, aided in her education, was involved in her extracurricular activities, took her on family vacations, and paid for her day-to-day expenses.”
Cook v. Cook (In re E.K.), 2022 CO 34, ¶ 25, 511 P.3d 605
The Colorado Supreme Court vacated the original decision and remanded the case back to the district court for its decision.
The Impact of Cook v. Cook on Colorado Family Courts
The Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling was important for family courts because it clarified the legal standard for cases in which a non-biological parent seeks parenting time.
The state’s high court ruled that stepparents can indeed receive parenting time.
What if I Object to My Child Living With My Ex?
A parental responsibilities dispute between a parent and a nonparent is not a contest between equals. In Interest of C.T.G., 179 P.3d 213, 218 (Colo. App. 2007) As your child’s biological parent, you have a fundamental right to make decisions concerning his or her care, custody, and control.
Therefore, before a court can grant parental rights to your ex over your objections, special factors must justify the court’s interference with your fundamental right as a parent. In re M.W., 2012 COA 162, ¶ 13, 292 P.3d 1158, 1160-61
Additionally, if your ex is seeking parental responsibilities contrary to your wishes, the court is required to give special weight to your opinion on whether to grant the requested responsibilities. This means your ex must provide clear and convincing evidence that it is in your child’s best interests for the court to grant them parental responsibilities. In re M.W., 2012 COA 162, ¶ 14, 292 P.3d 1158, 1161
Is There Anything I Can Do if My Teen Wants to Live With an Ex?
Theoretically, you can contact the police if your teen wants to live with an ex — and is actively refusing to come back to your home. However, the police often will not want to get involved in a domestic matter.
There are certain practical steps you can take to convince your child to come home, such as turning off the child’s cell phone or unenrolling him or her in certain extracurricular activities. If that doesn’t work, you may need an attorney.
Talk to a Colorado Family Law Attorney
The family law attorneys at Robinson & Henry have experience in all kinds of child custody cases, including if your teen wants to live with an ex. We can help you protect your family. Call 303-688-0944 to begin your case assessment. Si gustarÍa hablar con nosotros en español, por favor llámenos al 720-359-2442.