Modification of Custody Orders: “Best Interests of the Child” Standard

Following a divorce (whether after a contested trial or by a negotiated settlement agreement), the parties should expect that circumstances concerning child custody may and likely will change over time – especially if the minor child was young at the time of judgment.  In asking a Court to modify a custody order, a parent should be aware of the applicable law and prepared to present facts to demonstrate a legal basis for changing a parenting plan.

Connecticut’s law regarding post-judgment modification of custody orders is well settled. General Statutes § 46b-56(a) gives authority for such modification to the trial court, and reads, in part, as follows: the court may at any time make or modify any proper order regarding … custody or visitation if it has jurisdiction … according to its best judgment upon the acts of the case and subject to such conditions and limitations as it deems equitable.

The granting of statutory authority to modify custody orders under the above provision is not without limitation. Our Supreme Court has “… limited the broad discretion given the trial court to modify custody orders under General Statutes § 46b-56 by requiring that modification of a custody award be based upon either a material change of circumstances which alters the court’s finding of the best interests of the child … or a finding that the custody order sought to be modified was not based upon the best interests of the child …” Walshon v. Walshon, 42 Conn.App. 651, 657, 681 A.2d 376 (1996); Hall v. Hall, 186 Conn. 118, 122, 439 A.2d 447 (1982).

Notwithstanding the limitations placed upon the court’s discretion to modify child custody orders, it is clear that, in our state, the overriding interest that must inform the court’s judgment is its obligation to craft decisions that are in the best interests of the child. General Statutes § 46b-56(c). “Before a court may modify a custody order, it must find that there has been a material change in circumstances since the prior order of the court, but the ultimate test is the best interests of the child …” (emphasis added).  Sheiman v. Sheiman, 72 Conn.App. 193, 199, 804 A.2d 983 (2002); Brubeck v. Burns-Brubeck, 42 Conn. App. 583, 585, 680 A.2d 327 (1996). “The paramount concern in ordering custody is the best interests of the child.” Hall v. Hall, supra, 186 Conn. 121.

In determining the best interests of the child, the courts are aided by the provisions of General Statutes § 46b-56(c), which lists sixteen factors, any or all of which may, in the court’s discretion, be used in such determination:(c) In making or modifying any order as provided in subsections (a) and (b) of this section, the court shall consider the best interests of the child, and in doing so may consider, but shall not be limited to, one or more of the following factors: (1) The temperament and developmental needs of the child; (2) the capacity and the disposition of the parents to understand and meet the needs of the child; (3) any relevant and material information obtained from the child, including the informed preferences of the child; (4) the wishes of the child’s parents as to custody; (5) the past and current interaction and relationship of the child with each parent, the child’s siblings and any other person who may significantly affect the best interests of the child; (6) the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage such continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent as is appropriate, including compliance with any court orders; (7) any manipulation by or coercive behavior of the parents in an effort to involve the child in the parents’ dispute; (8) the ability of each parent to be actively involved in the life of the child; (9) the child’s adjustment to his or her home, school and community environments; (10) the length of time that the child has lived in a stable and satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity in such environment, provided the court may consider favorably a parent who voluntarily leaves the child’s family home pendente lite in order to alleviate stress in the household; (11) the stability of the child’s existing or proposed residences, or both; (12) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved, except that a disability of a proposed custodial parent or other party, in and of itself, shall not be determinative of custody unless the proposed custodial arrangement is not in the best interests of the child; (13) the child’s cultural background; (14) the effect on the child of the actions of an abuser if any domestic violence has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual or the child; (15) whether the child or a sibling of the child has been abused or neglected, as defined respectively in section 46b-120; and (16) whether the party satisfactorily completed participation in a parenting education program established pursuant to section 46b-69b. The court is not required to assign any weight to any of the factors that it considers.

A parent seeking or opposing a post-judgment modification of child custody should consult with an experienced family law practitioner.  Further information concerning this posting or confidential inquiries may be directed to Attorney Joseph C. Maya at 203-221-3100 or jmaya@mayalaw.com.