This morning, I read an interesting article in The Detroit News advocating for a new custody law to promote a shared custody arrangement, which is often referred to as joint custody. House Bill 4691, which was recently introduced by Rep. Jim Runestad, would joint custody and substantially equal parenting time as a starting point for Michigan courts in child custody deliberations.
Joint custody currently means that a child alternate periods of time with each parent. Typically, one parent would have the majority of parenting time. Joint legal custody involves important decisions affecting the child’s welfare. A current bill introduced by Rep. Renestad would redefine joint custody to mean essentially equal parenting time.
In the Detroit News article, Rep. Runestad correctly notes that there is a difference in the application of Michigan law in some counties in the State of Michigan:
“Striking testimony presented recently before the Michigan House Judiciary Committee revealed an alarming lack of consistency across counties. For example, joint custody determinations ranged from a high of 70 percent in some counties and as low as 14 percent in others. What the committee found was that a parent’s likelihood of enjoying joint custody had little relation to their parenting skills but rather it was a function of where the parent lived and what judge they were assigned.”
With over 20 years of Michigan divorce and family law trial experience, I cannot emphasize the importance of “knowing” the judge. What Rep. Runestad has correctly identified is the notion that a judges’ personal and political beliefs influence their decisions.
The bill, would redefine the Michigan’s Best Interest of the Child factors. House Bill 4691 would define Best Interest of the Child as “Maintaining an ongoing relationship with each parent and the right of the child to a substantially equal parenting time arrangement that promotes a strong relationship between a child and his or her parents.” Simply put, it would be presumed that joint custody and equal parenting time is the same as what is in the child’s best interest.
The current Michigan divorce and family law courts sit in both “law” and “equity”. The law is written is statutes and defined by cases and provides directions for making child custody decisions. Equity is based on fairness and is subject to a judge’s subjective beliefs. Simply put, existing Michigan child custody laws simply attempt to control a judges equitable powers with laws. Therefore, any change in Michigan child custody law without a change in the court’s equitable power would do little to change the problem identified by representative Runestad regarding disparate application of an award of joint custody in Michigan counties. Which is why I title this column, Joint Custody, Just say “know”. Having knowledge of a county or trial court’s preferences can help lead to better decision making. Simply put, experience counts.
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By: Daniel Findling