Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Custody Reform: Six More Proposals Varying in Practical Effect

In addition to the six lengthy proposed custody reform bills that we have reviewed over the past two weeks, there are six other proposed bills which would affect the resolution of custody disputes, although they do not make changes to the custody statute directly. In this post, we will summarize each of these proposals briefly and indicate how they could, at least in some indirect way, influence custody reform.

H.2851 – Legislation relative to mediation of divorce cases involving children.

This bill proposes adding a new statute to M.G.L. ch. 208: "SECTION 28B. Mediation of cases involving children". This new statute would allow the court to order the parties to participate in mediation in all custody disputes between parents (or grandparents). If mediation is ordered, all disputed issues (such as property division or alimony) will also be mediated. Parties are required to participate in said mediation "in good faith."

However, the "mediator has no authority to make a decision or impose a settlement upon the parties... Any settlement is entirely voluntary. In the absence of settlement, the parties lose none of their rights to a resolution of their dispute through litigation."

The proposed bill does allow some deviation allowing the court not to order mediation when there are circumstances such as abuse, undue hardship or drug abuse. Also, the court shall not order mediation if there is an active restraining order.

Clearly, the goal of this proposal is to force parties to try mediation, but in no way change their rights to litigation. While this is a laudable goal, the reality is that many cases won't settle, even with mediation. Is forcing mediation on people the right solution? How can the court "order the parties to participate in mediation" and have the settlement still be voluntary? This essentially amounts to bullying, but bullying that is worth it if you truly believe that mediation is that powerful of a tool.

Participation in mediation has been linked to increased involvement of non-custodial parents with children after divorce. However, this increase is based on voluntary mediation. Whether or not forced mediation will result in similar positive results is unknown, though it seems likely that there would at least be some benefit for at least some cases.

H.1305 – Legislation relative to child care involvement of non-custodial parents

This proposal amounts essentially to a right of first refusal for non-custodial parents before a child is placed in childcare. "If the court determines that the non-custodial parent is available, capable, and desirous of providing all or part of said childcare for the child or children for whom support is ordered, the court shall include in its order provisions allowing the non-custodial parent the right to provide such child care."

Similar provisions are sometimes included in agreements between parents to allow a non-custodial parent greater time with the children when the custodial parent is unavailable. However, the proposed bill is a little vague as to what counts as "childcare." Is preschool considered "childcare" or is preschool considered school, which carries benefits such as socialization. The idea is a good one, but needs to be refined.

S.0691– Legislation relative to parental choice of terminology in certain domestic relations matters. (H.2258– Legislation relative to parental choice in child custody agreements.)

This Senate and House proposal are essentially the same, and we will therefore summarize them together. These bills propose adding a new statute to M.G.L. ch. 208: "Section 31B. Parental rights and responsibilities; parenting plans; use of terms."

The proposed new statute would allow parties to use alternative terms for custody. These terms are defined in the proposal, essentially just replacing the term legal custody with "decision making responsibility" and physical custody with "primary residential responsibility". The proposal also includes a definition for "parenting plan."

The bill makes no requirements on the courts and would therefore be mostly window-dressing in our opinion. Allowing parents to use different, more "PC", terms doesn't really change the underlying reality. We already advise our clients to focus on the parenting plan first and the terms second, because how you actually parent your children is more important than the labels.

H.3289 – Legislation relative to the modification of custody orders involving parents called to active military service.

This proposed bill would prohibit courts from modifying parenting plans while a parent was on active duty military service, except for temporary orders deemed necessary to protect the best interest of the child. If a temporary order is made during the active duty period, the original plan will be reinstated upon the parent's return from active duty, and the active duty will not be considered in any modification determination.

This bill will have limited applicability, because most parents aren't facing this issue, but the protection of parental rights for members of the active duty military makes sense. The only potential issue we see with this language, is that it may make sense to allow some transition period back to the old parenting plan if the active duty military parent has been gone for a relatively long time. For example, a young child who hasn't seen a parent for a year, will need some time to get used to them again. This may not seem fair, but it is more realistic. This change could be made by adding only one line to address such a reasonable transition.

H.3289 – Legislation to prohibit certain activities within the home until a divorce is final and financial and custody issues are resolved.

The proposed bill is pretty straightforward:

In divorce, separation, or 209A proceedings involving children and a marital home, the party remaining in the home shall not conduct a dating or sexual relationship within the home until a divorce is final and all financial and custody issues are resolved, unless the express permission is granted by the courts.

Due to the length that some cases can drag out, this may not be practical in its blanket form. In addition, in cases where this type of order is appropriate, Judges are typically willing to make such an order. Changing the presumption to limit the rights of all individuals without a court finding in a particular case seems a bit overreaching and unnecessary. Given that the majority of these custody reform statutes are geared more towards less court oversight rather than more, this proposal stands out as superfluous and not likely to be recommended by the Judiciary Committee.

To read more about Shared Parenting in Massachusetts, check out the following pages:

Parenting Plan Worksheet - Use this worksheet to help compare potential or proposed Parenting Plans on a user-friendly calendar.

Child Custody Mediation
Collaborative Child Custody Resolution
Child Custody Litigation

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