Today there was a committee hearing at the Minnesota Legislature on a proposed bill to enact a presumption in favor of joint physical custody. The bill would establish a rebuttable presumption that joint physical custody is in the best interests of a minor child. (Minnesota law already has a presumption that joint legal custody is in the best interests of the child, if one or both parties requests it, except in cases of domestic abuse.)
The committee heard testimony from supporters of the measure, who are pushing for family law reform due to their claims that noncustodial parents are not treated fairly in Minnesota family courts. The committee also heard testimony from opponents who expressed concern that a presumption of joint physical custody would have an adverse impact on domestic abuse victims, place children in the middle of conflict, and would be based upon a misunderstanding of the current state of the law, which does not contain a presumption AGAINST joint physical custody nor a presumption in favor of sole physical custody.
As a practicing divorce attorney for many years, my clients include both mothers and fathers; custodial parents and noncustodial parents; victims, perpetrators, and falsely accused perpetrators, of domestic abuse. The fact is, currently, many family court orders award joint physical custody, many orders grant sole custody to dad, and many orders grant sole custody to mom. There is a growing trend to avoid the label of physical custody altogether, and use parenting plans and/or alternate terminology. A presumption of joint physical custody will not help the family court system.
Joint physical custody should not be confused with co-parenting. It is not necessary for a child’s parents to have joint physical custody in order for the child to have a healthy relationship with BOTH parents. It IS necessary for the child’s parents to properly CO-PARENT (or to have the active involvement of parenting neutrals). But joint physical custody is not indispensable, and for many families, would actually INCREASE the conflict that the child experiences, instead of lessening the conflict.
The bill, which makes exceptions to the proposed joint physical custody presumption in cases of domestic abuse, would require a court to make detailed findings to overcome the presumption and order something other than joint physical custody. So the proponents of this bill are seeking to have the family court forum be a place where courts decide whether someone should NOT have joint physical custody and make detailed findings about why NOT. The family courts – with which many individual committee members recounted their own personal, bad experiences – are already a forum that seems rife with negative energy. Yet what is proposed is for the presumption to be joint physical custody, and for all the focus of contested custody proceedings to be what these parents are NOT doing right in order NOT to be awarded joint physical custody. It adds more misfortune to what is, for many, the most unfortunate experience of their lives.
Moreover, either parent may be willing to allow the other parent to have sole physical custody, but not when faced with a presumption in favor of joint physical custody. They may be unwilling to “opt out” of the joint physical custody presumption (even though they would otherwise not fight for joint physical custody) figuring that they would appear to be turning their back on their child. Again, for many families in transition, the focus needs to be on REDUCING THE CONFLICT, not landing a coveted label of “joint physical custody”. In many instances, temporary or permanent custody arrangements other than joint physical custody are in the child’s best interests.
One other concern is the domestic abuse exception that is written into the bill. The domestic abuse laws of Minnesota are good laws, with a very bad downside: false accusations. Domestic abuse proceedings are the classic, quintessential “he said, she said”, and many litigants use the laws, in bad faith, as a tactic for undue advantage. This unfortunate practice would become only more common in the instance of a joint physical custody presumption with a domestic abuse exception.
Ultimately, this afternoon, the bill proposal was amended (i.e., compromised) to refer the issue of a joint physical custody presumption to a study group, to explore the family court processes, and determine what steps need to be made to improve the system. Many of the committee members expressed disappointment that such an action was, in fact, a failure to act. In my humble opinion, the bigger failure would have been enacting a joint physical custody presumption.
This was a great post. Even though, unlike you, I’m inclined to support a presumption for shared parenting, your well-stated arguments show that we proponents have lots of important issues to consider, and we should not think of shared custody presumptions as the no-brainer, cure-all remedy for frustrated noncustodial parents some simplistically claim it to be. You certainly gave me inspiration, and I posted a reaction to your post on my own blog, the Massachusetts Divorce & Family Law Blog.
Hooray….and thank-you for a well-written piece. I told a legislator over a decade ago “you cannot legislate good behavior”.
Those of us who have been dealing with this issue, the words, the labels, the parents, the kids, the fights, etc. understand that any family that requires a COURT to decide their parenting issues has already failed.
True “families” where both mom and dad are looking out for the best interests of their children….not the best interest of their pocket book….or the best interest of themselves…..those families restructure after divorce, and raise healthy children.
The families that fight endlessly in the courts do not have the financial or emotional resources to raise healthy children. They have wasted their time, energy and money fighting in the court system. This proposed legislation will INCREASE the number of famiies who are fighting in court. Families that would otherwise find a way to work it out will now be intent on “getting what is MINE” and to do so will require the other side to respond…..And, sadly, each will always be able to find an attorney who will engage in the fight.
Thank-you for being the attorney that I would send my best friend to.
Great article, totally agree with you. It was good to see you at this committee hearing at the State Office Building. Sorry I had to leave early.
It will be interesting to see what proposals or recommendations come out of this study group. Maybe they will discover that the famaily court system needs more resources to implement programs like Early Neutral Evaluations instead of modifying the law!
This is the classic argument against joint custody–conflict. If there is conflict, it isn’t good for children. The fact is, all studies show that it isn’t good for children to have a relationship with a parent disrupted. Never has there been a study to show which is worse–jpc with conflict or spc.
This is a lawyer who has a vested interest in keeping the status quo. We need to put children first, not lawyers. We need to argue with scientific evidence and studies, not “expert” lawyers. Good mothers don’t go for spc. They always want the dad involved unless he is a true child molester.
It’s time to put children first. The U of M showed that 94% of spc goes to the moms. Time to stop the arguing and go to a presumption of JPC.
Presumption of Shared Custody is a law that is long over due. With 40% of all children born out of wedlock and 50% of all marriages ending in
divorce. That means that of the 60% of children
born into a marriage, 30% will end up in a custody arrangement. Or 70% of all children born in the US will come from broken homes.
Presumption of Shared Custody is a bill that should be expedited for the good of all US children and for the US Constitutional correctness of all parties involved.