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New bill would presume parents get joint custody of children in divorce

Beth Cortez-Neavel

A new bill would require judges start with a presumption of joint custody when overseeing child custody in divorce cases.

But some lawyers and judges warn the move could be a disaster for both parents and their children.

Lawmakers behind the bill say too many child custody cases end with one parent being awarded the majority of parenting time.

Republican Representative Jim Runestad sponsored the bill. He said a disproportionate split can make custody battles adversarial.

“What we’re proposing is take this adversarial nature out of the process and say when two loving fit parents are before the court treat them with equity, treat them with equality, and say they both have been loving and caring if that’s the evidence.”

Runestad said under the current system, the decision to split up a child's time with a parent rests too much on the judge's discretion.

“So this bill is going to make a huge difference it starts with the presumption of joint physical custody for two loving, caring, fit parents. And I use the term ‘fit’ because what it means is if there is any evidence of domestic violence the starting point is undone.”

But not everyone feels a presumption of equal time is a good idea.

John Schafer is a lawyer specializing in family law. He said no divorce awards exactly 50/50 time to the parents.

“When a court has to decide parenting time they look at the schedule of the mother, the schedule of the father, the schedule of the children, and they do the best they can.”

Schafer said the presumption of joint custody will make it much harder for courts to negotiate scheduling between parents and children.

“This bill is just silly to say that presumptively we are going to have 50-50 time. That’s virtually impossible in most situations.”

Schafer said the bill would put undue pressure on lawyers to prove parents are unfit, in order to break the presumption and negotiate times that fit into a reasonable schedule.

The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and awaits a vote in the state House.