Family judges in the northerly American state of Michigan could be required to award divorcing parents joint custody of their children by default.
House Bill 4691 was approved by the House Judiciary Committee of the state legislature earlier this week. It would mandate equal parenting following divorce unless substantiated reports of domestic violence have been made.
The bill was introduced by Republication state representative Jim Runstad to remove the current ability of family court judges to decide how much contact each parent will have with their children on a case-by-case basis. Different judges take different approaches in different parts of the state.
Representative Runstad told the Detroit Free Press:
“We looked at county by county statistics on what happens in custody situations and what we found out is that the custody arrangements are not determined by the kind of parent that you are, but the judge in the county. We have study after study of the benefits of shared parenting. It’s a tremendous benefit for the children.”
The bill faced significant opposition from judges, lawyers and campaigners across the state who argued against the presumption that equal parenting is an appropriate approach in most cases.
Arguments against included the suggestion that shared parenting would make it harder for both parents to find work, that children would feel uprooted, and that it could be used to cut child support obligations without a corresponding increase in actual care of the children. The latter claim reflects the fact that the level of child support payment is reduced according to the amount of overnight stays the paying parent has with their children.
The Michigan Poverty Law Program provides, as the name suggests, legal services intended to benefit lower income families. Spokeswoman Rebecca Shiemke explained:
“That would reduce the child support burden that one parent would have to pay to the other. So a parent could get a lower child support obligation and then just not exercise their equal time.”
Meanwhile, two local family judges claimed that an equal parenting presumption took no account of the parent who actually undertakes most childcare in each family.
In testimony for the committee Judges Kathleen Feeney and Brian Kirkham wrote:
“This presumption disregards the actual facts as to which parent provides day-to-day support, maintenance and nurturing of the child and instead substitutes the mere presence of a parent.”
The bill would also prohibit either parent from moving more than 80 miles away from the other while the children are in their minority. In addition, judges would be required to give considerable weight to the views of children over the age of 16.
House Bill 4691 was passed by a 6-3 vote, with Republican representatives in support and Democrats opposed. It will proceed to a debate and vote before the full House of Representatives following the summer recess.
You can read more here.
Photo of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing by Subterranean/ Bryan Robb via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons licence