Custody disputes have been highly problematic for clients, attorneys and the courts for a long time. They are emotionally charged trials with often little evidence that points clearly towards one parent or the other as being a better option. So, judges are left to decide a child’s fate based on a noble, but nebulous standard of “the best interests of the child”. And, due to the repetitive nature of these cases, a court frequently has to decide these cases multiple times for just one child.
The most common issue in these trials is the schedule of overnights. That is, how many nights will a child spend with each parent, and how will those nights be structured? While this answer has financial implications due to the child support guidelines, it is largely an emotional issue for clients. Parents often see the distribution of overnight visits as a proxy for their relative parenting value, a symbolic judgment by the court that one of them is “better” for the kids than the other. If there has been conflict over parenting during the relationship, then the court’s divvying up of overnights frequently takes on an emotional meaning for parents that goes far beyond the practical impacts.
For these emotional reasons, parents litigate custody actions far more than the legal and practical realities would otherwise dictate. The irony of course being that the court fight itself runs contrary to the best interest of the child. And these often needless lawsuits serve as a severe drain on the court system, preventing the courts from addressing cases where children are in actual need of court protection and intervention.
To try to address this dynamic two North Carolina Senators have proposed Senate Bill 711. This bill’s short title is the Presumption of Shared Parenting Act . The bill would rewrite the primary child custody statute in North Carolina.
The first section of the proposed law sets forth a statement of North Carolina’s public policy regarding parenting of children whose custody is in question. The first listed policy is to “Encourage child-centered joint parenting agreement [sic] to reduce litigation over child custody matters.”
The remaining policy statements collectively state that North Carolina’s policy is to encourage maximum contact between a child and each parent, that the courts should PRESUME that both parents are fit parents and that the parents’ inability to get along with each other should not be used to overcome this presumption.
The statute then creates a legal presumption that “each parent will share as close to an equal amount of time with the child, but not less than thirty-five percent (35%) of the amount of time with the child as research currently suggests.”
First, it is important to note that this law would make official North Carolina’s policy of encouraging parents to agree to a co-parenting plan on their own and not bring these issues to the courts. This is a policy that I would certainly encourage. When the very government that will be making the decision about your kids is telling you that they don’t want to make decisions about your kids, then maybe we should listen…This policy really is an admonishment to parents to act like adults and handle their co-parenting issues in a reasonable way outside of court.
Secondly, the law would create a new legal presumption in custody cases. In reality, this presumption probably just makes explicit the assumption that many judges make at the beginning of a case. That assumption is that both parents in a case are valuable and capable of parenting their children in an acceptable manner, unless somebody proves otherwise. But, those judges that do harbor conscious or subconscious biases towards one parent role or the other would have to start from a different starting point if this law is passed. This presumption would probably function much like the current legal presumptions of a 50/50 split of marital property in equitable distribution or the presumption that the child support guidelines will be used in a child support case. That is, somebody will have to present a fairly compelling reason (some of which are mentioned in the bill) as to why a child would not benefit from roughly equal time with each parent before a judge could legally stray from the presumption.
Further, the presumption is given some clear(ish) lines by creating a floor of 35% of the time with each parent. The bill as currently written is not clear enough on this point, however. It does not state what “time” means. Does it mean 35% of the overnights? Is that 35% of the overnights in a month, a year? Or, is it 35% of the hours in a day, week, month or year?
Regardless of the exact eventual meaning, the number gives a clear indication of what is considered roughly equal time with each parent under this bill. Anything outside of that range and the court would have some explaining to do, literally. The trial court would have to include sufficient findings in its custody order to justify altering the 35% floor.
The practical effect would, most likely, be that attorneys would have a stronger basis upon which to predict the outcomes of potential custody suits for their clients. Much like the 50/50 property distribution presumption and child support guidelines in place now, the 35% presumption would narrow the range of predicted outcomes such that the resolution of cases would be easier. A narrow range of predicted outcomes facilitates settlement (as can a very wide range for risk reasons, but the current situation creates a range of outcomes that is neither predictable enough to force settlement nor risky enough to scare everybody into settlement).
The bill is currently sitting on the desk of the rules committee, which, to my understanding, means that it is probably dead for now. But, given the constant and unsustainable burden on the courts created by custody cases, and family law cases in general, this bill or a future iteration will probably make its way to a vote in the not too distant future. It will be fascinating to see what policies are delineated in that version.
(P.S. If the Legislature really wants to lower the number of cases in family court, an alimony formula or presumption would perhaps go even further than a child custody presumption.)
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/85608594@N00/15300693940″>Carl Jung Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>