Colorado Parental Responsibilities: Custody Laws & More

In Colorado, married parents of a minor child receive a parenting decision in their divorce or legal separation. Unmarried parents can open a case specifically to decide how they'll co-parent.

If both parents want to be in their child's life, Colorado judges usually find a way for the parents to share responsibilities.

Every case involving a child results in a parenting plan: a court order for how you'll co-parent. You can propose a plan — separately or together — to the court. A judge accepts a jointly proposed plan if it serves the child's best interests.

Most parents settle their disagreements outside of court, often through mediation, but some parents continue to trial.

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Eligibility to seek parental responsibilities

If you believe you're the child's parent but the law doesn't recognize you as such, establish legal parenthood before filing for parental responsibilities.

If you aren't the child's parent but the child has lived with you (and not with either of their parents) for at least the last six months, you can file for parental responsibility. This doesn't necessarily take away anyone else's parental rights. Ask the court to add you to any parenting case between the parents. Guardianship is another option for nonparents.

Types of parental responsibilities (custody)

You might see the term custody, especially in other states, but it doesn't have a specific meaning in Colorado law.

Instead, Colorado uses the term parental responsibilities to talk about how you'll care for your child. There are two main types: decision-making (i.e., legal custody) and parenting time (i.e., physical custody).


A judge decides if you and your co-parent are joint or sole decision-makers on each of the following topics:

  • Education
  • Medical care (including therapeutic and dental)
  • Religion
  • Extracurricular activities (not mentioned in the law, but often required by judges)

You and the other parent can propose whether you'd like to make these sorts of choices together or separately.

Typically, the court prefers joint decision-making. For example, if parents belong to different religions, the judge usually allows the child to learn two traditions.

But there are situations where the judge will lean toward sole decision-making for some or all topics. For example, when:

  • One parent has made questionable decisions in the past.
  • Decision-making about the child is part of an abusive dynamic between parents.
  • The parents have shown they can't cooperate.

Once you have a court order for decision-making, it's hard to change. You have to show that the court-ordered arrangement endangers the child.

Parenting time

Instead of trying to "win" sole parenting time, propose a schedule that will work well for your child. That's a better approach since the goal isn't to name a winner or loser.

A Colorado court considers these factors for parenting time:

  • What the parents want
  • What the child wants
  • Family relationships involving the child
  • Any domestic violence allegation
  • The child's adjustment to home, school, and community
  • Everyone's mental and physical health
  • Each parents encouragement of the child's relationship with the other parent (where domestic violence is not a concern)
  • Each parents history of "values, time commitment, and mutual support" regarding their child
  • The practicality of exchanges, given where the parents live
  • Each parents ability to put the child's needs first

The court doesn't automatically prefer fathers or mothers, and a parent's romantic and professional relationships don't influence the court's decision unless they affect the child.

Judges usually give significant parenting time to each parent. Here are possible outcomes:

  • Joint parenting time (equal): Judges are likely to give you equal time if you both want it and your homes and work schedules make it possible, though they don't automatically prefer it.
  • Joint parenting time (unequal): You and the other parent are considered to have joint parenting time as long as you each have at least one-quarter of the time (90 overnights per year).
  • Primary/secondary parenting time: A primary parent has the child more than three-quarters of the time. If the child shouldn't be alone with the secondary parent, that parent may be limited to supervised visits.
  • Full/no parenting time: If a parent is proven unfit (e.g., due to child abuse), a judge might cut off their contact with the child. This is rare.

Parenting time is part of the child support calculation. The less time a parent spends with their child, the more money they'll owe the other parent.

Settling out of court

The judge will usually order you to go to mediation if you can't reach agreement on your own. Mediation can speed the resolution of your case.

If your case involves abuse, mediation won't be required, but you may want to seek a mediator anyway — one who is trained to handle relationships like yours. Remember to tell the court if you don't want mediation because once the judge orders it, you'll have only five days to object.

Parenting classes

The first time a court determines your parental responsibilities (whether you're unmarried or divorcing), you'll both take a parenting class. It's four hours, often online, and available in English and Spanish. It costs about $50. The court usually orders it, so assume that this is required.

If you return to court later, the judge probably won't ask you to take the class again.

Special circumstances

Some parents, while they were still a couple, signed an agreement about how they planned to co-parent if they ever separated. Such an agreement may not be legally binding, but a judge will give weight to it.

Never-married parents who want to gain access to their child or step up their involvement can use the Access and Visitation (AV) Program. You can seek an AV mediation even before you file for parental responsibilities, and by doing so, you may avoid court altogether.

Expected costs

Whether you're married or unmarried, filing fees alone are close to $500, and if you represent yourself, this may be all you pay. Three-quarters of people in family cases represent themselves.

It's a good idea to hire a lawyer to represent you, though this increases your costs.

If you have conflict with the other parent, you may need a parenting expert. This is another significant expense. A child and family investigator costs under $2,750 unless the court gives a reason permitting them to charge you more. A parenting responsibilities evaluator — whose work is more extensive — typically begins with a $5,000 retainer, and their final cost can be much more.

In a divorce where each parent hires their own lawyer and involves an expert, it's typical for each to pay about $15,000.

Legal help

Having a lawyer is recommended, except in the simplest cases. They know the rules and how to navigate the system. Keep in mind that while your own situation may seem simple to you, it could be legally complex.

One reason to seek legal help is that judges work on all kinds of cases (family, civil, criminal, etc.) and often appreciate an experienced family lawyer's proposals.

If you don't have a lawyer, a family court facilitator or self-represented litigant coordinator may be available to explain the court process and help you with simple tasks. If you have a specific question, you may find an answer at Colorado Judicial Branch Self Help.

If you'll represent yourself, get familiar with the Colorado Rules of Civil Procedure — in particular, Rule 16.2 — and state law, known as the Colorado Revised Statutes.

For more help:

Tools for working with your co-parent

Most parents know which arrangements would serve their child's best interests. What can be challenging is working together. The Custody X Change online app can help you:

Our professional sources

Conscious Family Law & Mediation LLC
John C. Hoelle
Boulder, CO

Divorce in Colorado
Teddi Ann Barry
Boulder, CO

Dolan + Zimmerman LLP
Lauren G. Shepherd
Boulder, CO

Griffiths Law PC
Christopher Griffiths
Lone Tree, CO

Hogan Omidi PC
Kathy Hogan
Denver and Aspen, CO

Lester Law LLC
Lauren Lester
Denver, CO

Littman Family Law and Mediation Services
David Littman and Linda Moss
Denver, CO

Robinson & Henry PC
Allison Sutton
Colorado Springs, CO

Setter Roche Smith & Shellenberger LLP
Devin McIlvain
Denver, CO

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