“Parenting time” refers to how time with the children will be divided between divorced parents. This term replaced the term, “visitation”, which is now no longer officially used in the Colorado divorce statutes. Courts usually designate parenting time for one parent, and the other parent as the “primary care parent”, or “the parent with whom the children reside the majority of the time”. This designation can be important in determining significant parenting issues, such as whether a parent can permanently leave the state with the children.
In divorce, a court will approve most parenting time plans, so long as the parents agree and the court formally finds the parenting plan to be in the children’s best interests. If there is no agreement, the court will decide how parenting time will be divided, based on this best interests standard.
The statute that addresses children’s best interest states: “The general assembly finds and declares that 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.” Because the Legislature wants “frequent and continuing contact between each parent and the minor children,” judges often award considerable parenting time to non-custodial parents, even if that parent has had less contact with the children in the past. Many judges want to give non-custodial parents an opportunity to reestablish or enhance their parental relationships, even where they have failed to do so previously. This can be very frustrating to a parent who has provided all or most of the parental care, especially since the law also clearly states that parenting time will not be affected by lack of child support payments, which may also be an issue with formerly absent parents.
The amount of parenting time awarded by the court to the non-custodial parent might be affected by many factors. One is the child’s age. Children under about two-and-one-half years old will likely have few, if any, overnights with a non-custodial parent. Judges generally prefer shorter, more frequent parenting time, for younger children. Once a child reaches school age, courts often prefer he or she spend all school nights in one place; thus weekends, holidays and summers become important parenting time opportunities. Because judges do not like to give all free time to one parent, every-other weekend arrangements are common. Dividing holidays also allows both parents to alternately enjoy them with their children. When a parent lives out of state, summers may be used to make up for parenting time that might otherwise occur during the school year.
There is no age in Colorado at which a minor child may decide his or her own parenting time; however, the more mature the child, the more credence a judge will give the child’s wishes. In a parenting time dispute, the court may appoint a special advocate, who is an attorney or mental health professional, to interview the parties, children, and others, to recommend a parenting time plan to the court.
It is important that you carefully consider the long-term ramifications of any parenting plan that you enter into. You should, where necessary, consult with a skilled therapist and attorney, in order to review your options. There should be built-in provisions to enforce the agreement, as well as to modify the agreement. After all, the children’s well being must be the central focus in any well crafted parenting plan.