New legislation has been introduced in the Missouri House and Senate, which aims to provide divorced parents equal parenting time.
The proposed act states parents will be required to alternate taking care of their child every week. Courts will consider this the default parenting plan as long as each parent is “fit and willing.” If both parents feel this schedule does not work for them, they can also agree on an alternative scheduled and propose it to the court for approval.
The bill has been sponsored by Republican House representative Kathryn Swan, chairman of the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, and by State Senator Wayne Wallingford.
Supporters argue that passing the bill will not only benefit children, but also those parents who – although deserving of shared custody – were left with the short end of the stick. Under Missouri’s current law, joint physical custody means providing both parents “significant, but not necessarily equal” time with their child. The act will change the current definition to “approximate and reasonably equal” time with the child.
If the bill gets passed, it will require the court to presume a “parenting plan equalizing to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent who is fit and willing is in the best interests of the child,” according to the Missouri Senate.
Marta J. Papa, a family law attorney and divorce mediator in St. Louis, Missouri, stated that while the bill aims to represent the best interests of children whose parents are separated or divorced, it also represents the interests of the parents who want more time with their children.
“The judge cannot give preference to a particular parent or parenting plan, even if it’s not in the best interest of the child because of the child’s age,” said Papa, who believes, in some instances – such as when a child is an infant and requires more time with the mother – it is not in the best interest of the child for the parents to have 50/50 custody.
The proposed bill currently states: “…no preference [may] shall be given to either parent in the awarding of custody because of that parent’s age, sex, or financial status, nor because of the age or sex of the child.”
“It’s focusing on the parents’ rights to have time with the children instead of focusing on what’s in the best interest of the child,” Papa explained. “More often than not, it is the best, but it depends on the age of the children, the capabilities of the children, and the capabilities of the parent.”
According to Papa, in some cases – such as where the parents already spend equal time with their children – 50/50 custody will work because the children are already used to it. In these cases, even if the mother wants sole custody, the court will still order shared custody, stopping both parties from a potentially long and difficult custody dispute.
“Kids need mom more than dad at certain ages, and they need dad more than mom at certain ages,” said Papa. “As they get older, 50/50 custody when both the parents have been involved is perfect.”
“What’s best for the child is to make as few changes to the regular schedule and life of the child as possible. For example, keep the child in the main residence, the same neighborhood, the same school district, and the same church perish, if possible,” Papa explained. “Make as few changes in the child’s life as possible. The more changes the child goes through, the more difficult the transition.”
Parents who already have a custody arrangement will have the opportunity to have the court change it to 50/50 custody. Papa argued this could result in additional conflict between parents, which, according to her, is the main reason children are affected by divorce.
“It’s the conflict – not the schedule, and not the divorce – between mom and dad that’s the most negative thing for the children… It’s the most emotionally damaging,” Papa stated. “If the parents don’t show conflict and hatred towards each other in front of the children, the child is going to be OK at age 25.”
The bill states that if one of the parents violates the custody order for a second or subsequent time, the court may order the joint custody agreement to be modified and award primary physical custody to the other parent.
While shared custody arrangements are currently less common than other custody arrangements, this may soon change as many states are in the process of changing child custody laws. Eighteen states proposed shared parenting changes in the last year, according to the National Parents Organization; Utah, Minnesota, and, just last week, Florida have passed shared parenting laws. Aside from Missouri, Kentucky and Massachusetts also have active bills.
While it’s not always possible for parents to solve their custody dispute outside the court, Papa believes that “ultimately, the best result is for the parents to make the decision.”
“Statistics show, overwhelmingly, that if both parents are involved in the decision-making of the parenting plan, they are much more likely to follow that plan, not sabotage it, not fight about it, and not break it.”
Update (08/29/2016): Since introducing the new legislation, the House and Senate passed have the law, which came into effect on Sunday. While parents are not guaranteed equal parenting time, the law encourages courts to maximize the amount of time children will get to spend with each parent. The law also prevents courts from establishing their own rules and presuming one parent should have more parenting time than the other parent simply based on their gender, and forces courts to disclose reasons why shared parenting wasn’t awarded and provide written findings in case a party wants to appeal the judgment. Courts must consider things like residence, work schedules, and location of the child’s school when establishing a parenting plan.