Without question, one of the most difficult issues to resolve in any divorce is child custody, as neither side wants to see their ability to spend time with their children curtailed to even the slightest degree.
While this is understandable, the historical trend has been for courts across the nation to award mothers primary physical custody and fathers visitation rights, meaning, at best, perhaps every weekend to spend with their children.
Fortunately, things changed considerably here in Missouri this past year when lawmakers opted to follow the lead of a handful of other states -- Arizona, Minnesota, and Utah -- in passing what is known as a "shared parenting law," such that the starting point in custody matters is now a 50-50 split between mothers and fathers.
Specifically the law, which took effect back in August, calls for the following:
- The Office of State Courts Administrator to develop statewide guidelines for judges that "maximize to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent"
- Courts to disclose the reasons why shared parenting wasn't utilized in the event another custody arrangement is ordered
- Courts to supply written findings and conclusions in custody cases to facilitate an appeal should a parent disagree with the decision reached
- Prohibitions against courts presuming that one parent is more fit by virtue of their gender and establishing their own custody rules (i.e., default parenting plans)
While legal experts have pointed out that the law merely encourages, but doesn't actually mandate shared parenting, and would really only apply in those divorce cases that devolve into bitter courtroom battles, fathers' rights groups have nevertheless had nothing but effusive praise for what they see as a long overdue measure.
“Too many families have suffered from the family courts’ outdated preference for giving sole custody to one parent,” said the founder of one such group. “Times have changed, but the courts haven’t.”
It's worth noting that while the new shared parenting law does not expressly address child support, state law does declare that "the child’s physical and legal custody arrangements, including the amount of time the child spends with each parent” should be considered as “relevant factor” in determining the amount of child support payments.
It will be interesting to see what transpires in this area over the coming year and whether other states follow suit …
If you have questions about child custody matters or would like to learn more about your options as they relate to divorce, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional who can provide answers and pursue solutions.