Thomas A. Morton Quoted in Arizona Republic Commenting on Arizona's New Custody and Parenting Time Laws.
By Alia Beard Rau
The Republic | azcentral.com
Tue Dec 25, 2012 9:22 PM
A new Arizona law goes into effect Jan.1 that may change how much time divorced parents get to spend with their children.
Senate Bill 1127 is among a handful of laws the Legislature passed this spring with delayed effective dates.
Most new laws went into effect in August. Those with January start dates include changes that affect attorney’s fees, landlords and fire districts.
The new custody law encourages joint parenting, including requiring the court to adopt a plan that “maximizes” both parents’ time with the child and forbids the court from giving one parent preference based on the parent’s or child’s gender.
Physical custody will now be called parenting time and legal custody will now be called legal decision-making authority. The parent with legal decision- making authority now has power over not just a child’s health and education but also personal-care matters like haircuts and ear piercing.
Under the new law, the court now must fine any parent who lies to the court or tries to delay court proceedings. Before, such fines had been optional. There are also stricter reporting requirements for parents to notify the other parent when they move a significant distance away.
“It changes a lot of things,” said Mesa family-law attorney Billie Tarascio. “We are moving away from the every-other-weekend custody arrangements or mom automatically being named the custodial parent.”
The Arizona Supreme Court does not keep data on how judges rule in custody cases. Statistics from outside groups are outdated, showing courts awarded joint custody to parents 5 percent of the time in 2002 and 15 percent of the time in 2007. Anecdotally, attorneys and researchers say Arizona judges have been awarding more joint-parenting time.
“It seems like in recent years the trend in Maricopa County family court has been for more time, if not equal time, for the non-primary parent,” Phoenix family-law attorney Tom Morton said.
Both Tarascio and Morton said they believe the state is headed in the right direction.
“The role of parents, at least with regard to how the law treats them, is changing,” Tarascio said. “All over the country we are seeing this change away from every other weekend and really valuing dads a lot more. They really want to maximize the relationship between the children and the parents.”
But Morton said attorneys and parents will have to wait to see exactly how Arizona judges interpret the new law.
“It’s a change that I think is generally for the better on parenting time — if it’s interpreted the way I think it will be interpreted,” Morton said. “I think judges will be looking for ways to maximize time the non-primary parent will have with the child. But it remains to be seen how far the courts will go.”
Arizona is among the states leading the push for shared parenting time.
A handful of other states have passed similar laws in recent years. Unlike Arizona, which gives the judge authority to decide exactly how much time each parent gets, many states have minimum requirements. Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, for example, now require that each parent get at least 40 percent parenting time.
The standard visitation of every other weekend and one night a week adds up to about 20 percent parenting time for the non-custodial parent.
Other states have considered increasing parenting time. The Minnesota Legislature passed a bill this year to give the non-custodial parent at least 35 percent parenting time, up from 25 percent. But the governor vetoed it.
While many experts agree that children need access to both parents in most situations, the trend is not without controversy. Activists for mothers’ rights say the laws are a ploy to help fathers. Groups that combat domestic violence are watching the effort closely to assure it doesn’t expose children to an abusive parent.
The Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence initially opposed the law but later changed its stance to neutral after lawmakers made some adjustments.
Arizona’s new law still requires judges to make decisions based on the children’s best interest, but their best interest now includes maximum time for both parents. And the state law is clear that maximum parenting would not apply to an abusive parent.
Morton said he doesn’t expect a flood of parents seeking changes in their parenting time as soon as the law goes into effect. He said the change will likely be gradual. Courts require that a parent have some sort of change in circumstances before requesting a change in custody arrangements, and a change in law would not apply.
“However, there are a lot of things that could be a chance in circumstances, such as the fact that a child is older now,” he said.