Articles Posted in Child Custody

sunrise-in-the-mountains-1425523-mRecently, an interesting story was in the media about a Muslim convert that posted threats against South Park for its cartoons about the prophet Muhammad and then tried to join a Somali terror group, using his baby at the airport to try to appear less suspicious. He was put on the no-fly list and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The baby, who now lives with the man’s mother, is now the subject of a custody dispute being heard in federal appellate court. The man, who is imprisoned in a super-max prison, is suing his mother, who doesn’t share his conservative Islamic beliefs, and the FBI for monetary damages on the grounds that they are interfering with his parental rights. While most Colorado child custody disputes do not involve this level of intrigue, the issue of religious beliefs sometimes does play an important role.

A child’s religious upbringing can be determined during the course of divorce proceedings as part of the question of “parental responsibility”, known as custody in other states. Parental responsibility has three aspects: (1) who will make important decisions for the child, (2) who the child will live with, and (3) visitation for a non-custodial parent. The first element, considered legal custody, can be sole or joint, and it has the most impact on a child’s religious upbringing.

If only one parent will make important decisions for a child, it will probably also be the primary custodial parent with whom the child lives. When a child splits his or her time between the parents, the issue of who gets to control a child’s religious upbringing may be more fraught. One parent may have an intense religious faith not shared by the other parent; in some cases, that is a reason for the divorce as well. As in the news item shared above, a parent who converts may no longer have the same views as others to whom he or she was previously close, and may not want the child to be influenced by somebody not of that faith.

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3626966782_b489fc70af_z.jpgColorado courts have jurisdiction over children who reside within this state, meaning that they can make orders regarding allocation of parental responsibilities and child support. State law is equipped to address interstate custody disputes, but international disputes require the assistance of a treaty signed by fewer than half of the world’s countries. A Colorado appellate court applied elements of state, federal, and international law in a ruling that affirmed an order returning two children to their father in Canada. In re T.L.B. and M.A.B., 272 P.3d 1148 (Colo. App. 2012).

Most U.S. states, including Colorado, have enacted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). See C.R.S. 14-13-101 through 14-13-403. This law guides courts in determining which state has jurisdiction over a case and resolving conflicts between different states’ laws. The Hague Convention of the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the “Convention”) deals with international custody disputes. The United States signed it in January 1981, and the Senate ratified it in April 1988. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 11601 through 11611. The Convention assists countries in child custody disputes that cross national borders, provided that both countries have signed and ratified it. As of the end of 2014, this includes 93 of the world’s 195 countries.

The Convention’s primary function is to preserve whatever status quo existed before an allegedly wrongful removal of a child from his or her country of residence. The new country must honor the original country’s custody arrangement and promptly return the child. Some exceptions apply, including a finding by a court in the new country that the return would put the child at “grave risk” of “physical or psychological harm” or “otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation.” Convention art. 13(b).
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It’s been a few years since I have addressed the issue of child endangerment and custody cases. With some minimal changes to statute, and a rash of cases we have seen thus far in 2015, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the topic. Most cases involving Colorado child custody proceed in normal fashion, with issues related to both visitation (parenting time) and legal custody (decision making) being resolved either through written agreement or ultimately at a hearing in front of a judge. However, from time to time, cases arise in which there are instances of abuse, whether physical or emotional, or neglect, which warrant immediate action on the part of the court. Colorado Revised Statutes section C.R.S. 14-10-129(4) sets forth standards and procedures for parties to seek immediate relief from the court in instances in which there is “imminent” danger to a child. To Colorado custody attorneys dealing with child emergencies, the common term for a motion filed under C.R.S. 14-10-129(4) is a “motion to restrict,” the filing of which comes with its own set of procedures and pitfalls. It is important for parties and legal practitioners to understand how a motion to restrict works and the standards of proof a court will look for for purposes of either sustaining such a motion or defending against one.

As an experienced Denver family law attorney, the first step I take when assessing a motion to restrict is to understand what the specific allegation of danger is. As statute requires a finding of imminent danger, courts are looking for more than just a mean parent, a parent who yells, or lesser, lingering types of mistreatment or neglect. For a restriction of parenting time to stand, courts are looking for acute and imminent danger, such as extreme verbal abuse or real and provable physical abuse.

Because statute speaks of the physical or emotional abuse placing the child in “imminent” danger, courts are looking for a present threat. Thus, timing matters. Raising allegations from years, months, or weeks ago as the basis for a restriction might not cut it with the judge. As such, when real danger exists to a child, it is important to take action in a meaningful manner as relates to timing. The longer one waits to take action or raise an issue, the weaker the argument that the danger is imminent. Issues too far in the past may be building blocks for seek changes to visitation in the normal course of a modification, but will likely not be enough to meet the burden of proof when seeking restriction.
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sand-84589_640.jpgRepresenting clients during a divorce case is only part of our Denver family law practice. If a couple has children who are under the age of 18, our clients’ responsibilities continue long after the judge grants the divorce, and we are there to help. (Please note that Colorado courts no longer use the word “custody,” but since it remains a familiar term, we will use it here.) Vacations, especially during summer breaks from school, are an important part of childhood, but as great as summer vacations can be, they can also be a major source of conflict between parents who share custody. How does Colorado family law handle this sort of situation?

As a general rule, it is always a good idea to notify the other parent of a planned summer vacation. A parent may be legally obligated to get the other parent’s permission for a trip, however, based on two factors: the timing of the trip and the destination.

Timing of a Summer Vacation

A parent can schedule a vacation during one of their designated periods of summer visitation without necessarily needing the other parent’s permission. Most parenting plans allow alterations to the established schedule with both parents’ agreement, such as if a planned vacation is only possible at a time not covered by the existing parenting plan. It should go without saying that it is absolutely critical to get any sort of agreement like this in writing.
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Part 1 of this article focused on gaps in Colorado statute related to child support. Though the law is comprehensive, it’s not perfect. Colorado family law and custody practitioners repeatedly experience situations in cases, whether divorce, custody, or otherwise, in which they say to themselves, “statute should clearly state….,” or “this gray area would be easily resolved if the legislature had only gone one step further.” I could sit in my office for hours finding various holes in our family law statutory sections, where just a little more clarity might take away some of the ambiguity that parties, lawyers, and judges face. The second part of this multi-part posting will focus on various gaps in custody and visitation laws and will also suggest potential, easy solutions to such.

1. A very common questions I’m asked is “at what age do my children get to choose who they live with or when they see the other parent?” The proper answer, under Colorado custody laws, is “there is no magical or statutory age at which kids get to decide as to custody or visitation.” In practice, most courts will generally start to give kids more autonomy around age 14. By 16 or 17, most courts will give significant weight to the child’s wishes. Regardless of age, families and children are bound by the ambiguity in Colorado law, which often leads to legal wrangling and court battles over what to do with teenagers. Pursuant to C.R.S. 14-10-129, one must technically show either physical endangerment or significant emotional impairment to a child’s development in order to change primary residential custody. What about situations in which that 16 year old come out and says, “I want to go live with mom?” Technically, if there is no physical or emotional danger at dad’s home, the change in custody should not occur. It’s time for Colorado statute to catch up to the laws of some other states. I represent clients in various states throughout the county. Many of them indicate, “well, if the child was in my state he would get to decide at age “X.” Often times I hear 14. The youngest I commonly hear is age 12, in Florida. Though a 12 year old should not be vested with deciding where to live, or what parenting time to exercise, a bright line age set forth in Colorado statute, such as 15, could cut down on significant amounts of litigation related to older teenagers. Beyond legal battles over modifying residential custody, a concrete age would also assist in initial divorce case in which there is a teenager. It would also alleviate litigation under C.R.S. 14-10-129.5 related to enforcement of parenting time orders. I’ve seen too many cases over the years in which a teenager says he or she doesn’t want to go to the other parent’s home, contrary to the court orders. These situations, sad and difficult in the first place, are often mad worse when the other parent decides to bring first parent to court for violation of the orders. Though some judges and experts recognize that the first parent cannot physically pick up that 5 foot 10 inch child and throw him into the car, some judges do not. Courts can take violations of orders seriously and such can potentially even lead to jail time. Again, a bright line rule as to age would end these battles over enforcement of visitation orders, and lighten court dockets. As one wise family law judge puts it, “a teenager is like an 800 pound gorilla and you can’t make that gorilla go where it doesn’t want to. The teenage years are crazy enough. A little clarity in statute might help take out some of the drama for all. Of course, with underdeveloped brains and raging hormones, statute would need to have caveats to full autonomy, such as might relate to substance abuse, violence, lack of academic guidance or significant mental illness in one party’s home. Absent those things, and with two good parents, a 15 year old should have a choice and parents should have clear guidance as to the law.
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anxious-1-867286-m.jpgRecently, there has been significant public attention to issues of domestic violence around the nation. Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior within a family or other intimate relationship. It can include spousal abuse or child abuse, and it can go beyond physical violence, including verbal abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, and psychological abuse. Last year, more than 10,000 domestic violence misdemeanor cases were filed, and this drop of 13% is considered an improvement. It is not uncommon for an abusive spouse to claim that he or she will take the kids, or take away support or insurance so that the kids don’t have money. Under the Colorado Victims Rights Act, a perpetrator cannot take away kids or housing.

Under § 14-10-124(1.5)(a)(IX) and (X), C.R.S.2005, a Colorado court is supposed to consider whether one of the spouses has perpetrated child or spousal abuse when making an allocation of parenting time. However, a finding of child abuse or spousal abuse doesn’t automatically result in the court denying parenting time to the parent who perpetrated the abuse, even though it is a relevant factor to determining the child’s best interests. In many cases, the parent who has been charged with child abuse, for example, has worked on issues with a therapist and ultimately the parenting coordinator, and others agree that he or she can have parenting time or even be the primary residential parent.

How do the courts decide these difficult cases? In general, the courts will look at whether the perpetrator received therapy or counseling, how far in the past the incident was, the healthiness of the attachment between the perpetrator and the child, the impact of the abuse on the child, and the perpetrator’s ability to put the child’s needs first.
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Part 1 of this posting, from June 2014, focused on the basics of relocation with children in a Colorado custody case, including analysis(es) related to situations which might arise either prior to a case being filed, or while a case is pending, as well as pre-final orders requests to move from Colorado with children, covered under a court case called Spahmer. Though various portions of statute and case law deal with the pre-final orders aspects of custody and relocation, there is a completely different legal standard for seeking permission to leave Colorado with the children after final orders have entered in a divorce or custody case.

Once final, or “permanent” orders have entered, there are two scenarios in which relocation with children could become an issue. Prior to getting into an analysis of the law related to properly requesting a change in location, I will briefly address a situation we, as Denver custody attorneys, see from time to time. Though not common, there are instances in which one party to a custody case decides to leave Colorado, or the Denver metropolitan area, with the children and without seeking permission of the court or the other party. If there are parenting time orders in place, the expectation of any court is that they will be followed. If one party decides to just leave Denver, and abscond with the children without permission, the law affords various remedies to the other party. Of course any family law attorney should advise his or her clients that just leaving with the children can have tragic legal consequences.

When on party leave Colorado with the children such that he denies the other party his or her visitation, he or she becomes subject to relief under C.R.S. 14-10-129.5, which relates to enforcement of parenting time orders. Most certainly, he or she will ultimately lose actual physical custody of the children for leaving the state without permission. He or she will likely also be subject to contempt of court proceedings, which can include jail. C.R.S. 14-10-129.5 also contains contempt like provisions. Beyond these avenues for relief, the person wrongly leaving, when caught, can expect to have is or her visitation taken away and will likely have to endure supervised visitation for quite some time until he or she proves they are no longer a flight risk. The arm of the law within the United States is long. Should one elect to flee to another state, once found, it is likely the other side with take steps under the Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act to get the children returned to Colorado. Finally, violating Colorado custody orders and fleeing the state, or area, with the children is technically a felony and can lead to serious criminal consequences, including potentially prison. Colorado family law courts do not like to see their orders regarding visitation violated and the penalties can be harsh. Of course, the “relocation”, per se, discussed in this paragraph is the exception and the wrong way to go about things.

When a party determines that he or she wishes to move from Colorado, with the children, the proper route to go is to seek relief from the court pursuant to C.R.S. 14-10-129, the parenting time modification statute. C.R.S. 14-10-129(2)(c) specifically addresses the issues centered around a parent’s desire to relocate with the children, including procedures, legal standards in terms of what the court is looking for in terms of information to make a determination, etc. Relocation cases are generally also viewed under a case called Ciesluk, 113 P.3d 135 (Colo. 2005), in which the court determined that a court should look at the best interest factors set forth in C.R.S. 14-10-124, as well as those enumerated in (2)(c). Unlike a Spahmer analysis, the reason for the move under Ciesluk matters more significantly.
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One of the most important aspects of any divorce proceeding is who is going to retain custody of the children. For opposite-sex Colorado divorces, there are rules that have been applied and defined over the years that create settled expectations. However, as more and more same-sex couples get legally married in other states, there is a question as to how Colorado law will treat these relationships.

i-love-my-child-1106732-m.jpgAs a starting point, the State of Colorado does not consider same-sex marriages entered into in other states to be legally binding in Colorado. So if a same-sex couple who was married outside the state splits up while in Colorado, Colorado law will apply and will not recognize their marriage.

This can lead to situations where, if the parents had been of the opposite sex, the law would be settled. However, since the couple is a same-sex couple, the law is unsettled. This creates a difficult situation for same-sex couples because there is no way to know what to expect when splitting up.
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Though we can all look back to a time when people were born and raised in one town or one state, the reality is that today’s society is both national and transient in nature. People work for national companies, with multiple locations. Job transfers to new areas of the country are a fact of modern day employment and the 21st century economy. People no longer stay put in one location. Aside from employment situations, people with children may have other reasons to move from Colorado, such as acceptance into an out of state university, military reassignment, or a desire to just be closer to a family support network somewhere else. When families or couples are together or intact, these moves are just part of life and everyone jointly rolls with the changes to come. However, things can be entirely different, and moving can be much more difficult, for people either going through an initial Colorado custody or divorce case, or those wanting to move at some point after final orders are entered. As a basic premise, one must keep in mind that obtaining court permission to move pre-decree or pre-final orders can be a much easier proposition than seeking to move at some point in the future after the initial phase of a case is done.

Prior to the entry of final orders in a Colorado custody case, or divorce with children, both parents have equal rights to children and there is no specific law, per se, that prohibits one party from just packing up and moving with the children. However, once a family law case involving children is filed, Colorado statute, either Colorado Revised Statutes section 14-10-107 or 14-10-123, precludes people from leaving the state with the children while the case is pending, absent agreement from the other party or an order of the court. If a case has not yet been filed and one parent moves from Colorado with the children, there is no statutory violation under sections 107 or 123. That being said, our courts, depending on the circumstances, have the power to order the party who left with the children prior to a case being filed to return them to Colorado. This might occur in situations in which a party just left Colorado with the children, absent an agreement or notice to the other party, and the other party timely files an emergency motion requesting their return. In such instances, the court may look at how long the party and children have been gone prior to filing, whether the other party knew of their whereabouts, or other logical factors tying into whether it is in the children’s best interest to come back.
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flowering-cannabis-plants---hydroponics-indoors-1431036-m.jpgAs most Colorado residents know, recreational marijuana use was approved via Amendment 64 last fall. The status of marijuana in noncriminal matters, however, remains ambiguous. How will Amendment 64 be implemented? A task force was set up to recommend positions that lawmakers should take about marijuana regulation. The force did not offer a recommendation about how marijuana use should be handled in a child custody case. This could prove problematic in certain cases, but for the most part child custody cases will continue to function as before.

If a parent is not participating wisely in parenting a child, his or her poor decisions will affect the custody arrangements made by the court irrespective of whether marijuana use has influenced those decisions. For example, if a father is too busy with a grow operation and getting high to make sure a child is getting to school or taking his or her medications, his parenting decisions will be scrutinized irrespective of marijuana’s legality.

Medicinal marijuana has actually been an issue in family law cases for several years. Many parents have reported another parent’s marijuana use to the court in order to get the second parent in trouble. It seems clear that many people do feel marijuana use by a parent is more of a problem than drinking a glass of wine or smoking a cigarette, even though marijuana is now legal. Denver Judge Karen Ashby has noted that medical marijuana has been treated no differently over time than other substances. A parent who smokes a joint after dinner may not be treated differently than a parent who drinks a glass of wine over dinner. Both marijuana and alcohol are likely to be considered on a case-by-case basis now that both are legal substances.
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