Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Custody and Visitation Reform

My friend is going through a divorce, and he worries that the judicial system will screw him when it comes to time with his children. From experience as a divorce lawyer and as an advocate for children in divorces, I have found that men tend to seek less time with their children and to give way to their former wives in the parenting department. Those who actively seek more involvement with their children usually get it in the absence of unfitness. I have known quite a few women who worked to limit the fathers' acess to the children and grew to regret it within a few months. The fathers, many of whom never paid much attention to the kids anyway, now have it made and can be the fun parent every other weekend or so, while the mothers are stuck with all the work of parenting.
Now and then a parent will really get the shaft and end up on the business end of a grossly unfair custody and visitation ruling.

I would like to see significant reform of the procedures for awarding custody and visitation. I would like to see reform based on a number of principles:

1. Some folks' inability to sort out their parenting issues should not become society's problem, and public facilities, eg courts, should not be tied up with minutiae.

2. Custody and visitation issues should not be part of the process of bargaining over property. These should be distinct issues with the best interests of the children as the primary factor.

3. Courts are not really competent to decide custody and visitation issues, and rulings are in effect arbitrary. Accordingly, courts should not be called upon to resolve these issues without expert resources and then only in extreme cases.

One way of reforming the system that would hit on a number of these principles would be to establish a default parenting arrangement that would apply in all cases where the parents cannot agree to deviate from it. Parents would be free to design a mutually agreed upon custody and visitation program without court approval, but any matter on which the parties could not agree would be governed by the default. The default provisions would be rebuttable in court only on a positive showing that their application would threaten the health or safety of the child. Such a system would minimize court involvement and would promote negotiated arrangements. It should also limit the leverage either parent might have to influence other aspects of the divorce settlement by bargaining over access to children.

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