A Missouri law went into effect last week aimed at equalizing child-custody arrangements for both parents.
A Missouri father who helped spearhead the effort called it a "monumental" advance. The National Parents Organization has touted the virtues of such "shared parenting" policies and is pushing states nationwide to adopt them.
Missouri Legislature passed House Bill 1550, which requires judges to provide a written explanation if they do not award equal child custody and child support when parents cannot agree on arrangements. (The law allows for some exceptions,
including cases of child abuse, special needs or a disruption to a child’s
educational needs, but the exceptions must be documented.)
written provision is intended to allow the non-custodial parent a better chance
on appeal. Previously, courts determined custody based on the “best interests”
of the child. Critics said that allowed some parents to more easily
violate visitation and financial obligations. It also didn't allow
much opportunity to appeal the ruling.
St. Louis father Mark
Ludwig, along with several other parents fighting for child-custody rights, advocated for changes to Missouri’s law as part of
the non-profit Missouri Fathers’ Rights Movement.
was a whole team of us,” Ludwig said. “Most of us basically came together as
individuals with our own stories. My son was taken away from me for 204 days.
We had a grandmother who was fighting for more than four overnights a month.
That really showed how custody issues affect the whole family.”
praised the provision that forces judges to explain denials of shared custody in
a judge does not give equal time, they have to give a written reason why,”
Ludwig said. “That gives the appeals judge a basis to go on.
“The standard time
given to a non-custodial parent (prior to the law’s passage) for visitation is
four overnights a month and four hours a week. That’s the standard parenting
plan in Missouri,” he added. “That’s not a parent, that’s a visitor. The new law does not
mandate 50/50 but it allows judges to start at a 50/50 presumption. Then they
have 27 different rebuttal assumptions that they have to document as to why a
parent is not justified in getting equal custody.”
law also states that if either party has not provided proper
visitation or financial support, the violated party may request a hearing with
a judge within 30 days.
law, which passed the Senate 28-0 and the House 154-2, only applies to new
custody cases, although Ludwig said it could some prompt parents to file
modifications to current arrangements.
the single-most monumental family legislation to pass in the country,” Ludwig
said. “We’ve been contacted by 29 other states so far. This legislation has
swung the door open. Other states have some similar laws but this one is
probably the most powerful as far as instructions to the judges. It makes cases
“And it’s supposed to be about the kid. Kids have the right to have
equal access to both parents,”
“It should not be based on the sex of the parent,
either. Society generally thinks kids should be with their moms but that’s not
always the best interest of the child.”
Rep. Jim Neely, a Republican from northwest Missouri, said he initiated the
legislation a couple of years ago, after two women from Cape Girardeau
approached him about the issue.
came to me after they had asked someone else to do it and they didn’t,” Neely
said. “I crafted the legislation into a shared parenting bill, with the intent
to give it to a female legislator because we thought it might pass easier that
way. Initially, the bill never had a hearing.”
said that while the law does not guarantee equal custody, it places both
parents on more equal footing from the start of legal proceedings. The law
applies to anyone going through a divorce, legal separation or unwed parents
who are no longer together.
can be antagonistic and parents are taken advantage of because of it,” Neely
said. “Before, with the findings and facts and conclusion of law, if they
didn’t put it in writing, the offended party couldn’t appeal. We wanted to try
to make the legal proceedings a little more concrete. They can start out at
50/50 but the judge has to give a compelling reason and proof as to why they
law tends to favor one parent over another and there’s always a factor of
alienation. Kids miss out on having both parents that way,” he added.
“Moms and dads bring
different perspectives and insight to their kids. Kids learn different things
from each parent. Both, generally, are looking out for the best interests of
their children. When you don’t have two people sharing that, the kid loses.”
said he heard opposition to the legislation privately from lawyers, but not
think if they were being honest, the Missouri Bar is opposed to it but I’ve
been told such associations are being cautious,” Neely said.
Missouri Bar Association (MBA) did formally oppose similar proposed legislation
two years ago but Missouri Bar Media Relations Director Farrah Fite said HB
1550 addressed the points of opposition.
February 2016, the Bar’s executive board voted to support the new
legislation “in concept.” In a letter to Neely, the MBA said: “The executive committee voted to support the concept of ensuring that parties to child-custody cases are aware of all options available to them in the enforcement of
a parenting plan.”
said the executive board has not yet met to vote on HB 1550 since it passed
with the amendments, including the shared parenting provision, so the
organization will remain neutral on the issue for now.
do other states compare? As of last spring, the National Parents Organization, which in 2014
state-by-state analysis of parental inequality, listed just eight states as having the most favorable laws for shared
parenting: Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, South Dakota and
Meghan McCann, policy specialist for the National
Conference of State Legislatures, said the NCSL has documented shared
parenting legislation (pending, failed, and enacted) from 2012-2016.
are listed in the NCSL Child Support and Family Law Legislation Database at: http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/child-support-and-family-law-database.aspx.