On January 1, 2013 Arizona's new statutes on custody and parenting time will take effect. Among the coming changes will be a change in terminology from "custody" to "legal decision making." More importantly, the new statutes require a court to "maximize" the non-primary residential parent's parenting time. Of course, we will not know for sure what this means until Arizona's courts have interpreted the new statutes. However, the new statutes seem to require Arizona's courts to truly maximize a parent's time with his or her child, rather than "giving" the child to one parent and giving the other parent every other weekend from Friday evening until Sunday evening.
How will this effect a non-primary parent who lives hundred or thousands of miles away from the primary residential parent? Again, we will not know for sure until Arizona's family courts interpret the new parenting time statutes, but it appears that the family court should award as much time as possible to the non-primary parent. This would mean that the days of splitting school breaks in half are over. For example, if the children live in Phoenix, Arizona with their mother, and their father lives in Texas, the family court will not simply make an order sending the children to Texas for every other spring break, every other fall break, four or five weeks every summer, and one-half of each Christmas break. Now, it looks like Arizona's family courts should craft visitation orders awarding the parent living away from the children with every spring and fall break and most or all of every summer. This presents the interesting question of whether the requirement to "maximize" the non-primary parent's time with the children requires the family court to award all of every Christmas break to the non-primary parent. Most families celebrate Christmas and this holiday can often be the most hotly contested holiday in family court. Or what about the traditional vacation every summer with the primary parent? Arizona's statutes require the family court to consider the children's best interests, and this is the primary guiding principal to family courts making parenting plans. The next question is therefore whether it is really in the children's best interest to spend every Christmas with one parent, or whether it is in the children's best interest to spend no vacation time with the primary residential parent. Time will tell, but I predict that Arizona's family courts will balance all considerations, including the requirement to maximize time for the non-primary parent, the best interests of the children, and the rights of both parents.
Therefore, I believe that courts will give the long-distance parent the bulk of the summer, spring, and fall breaks, but continue to split the winter/Christmas breaks. If you have this issue or any family law issue pending in Arizona's courts, I am ready and willing to consult with you, whether you are looking for an attorney or you are just seeking advice.