SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers took a step Wednesday toward establishing another option for courts in divorce cases that would give noncustodial parents who meet certain criteria more time with their children.
HB35, which was unanimously approved by the House Judiciary Committee, is intended to give judges another option in determining parent time and conceivably reduce conflict between former spouses.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said the legislation would give courts and divorcing parties another option for sharing time with their children if they agree to the terms and can meet certain conditions.
Under Snow's bill, noncustodial parents could seek a minimum of 145 days with their children per year, which would be an increase of the 110-day minimum currently in statute.
The bill would require noncustodial parents seeking increased parent time to demonstrate they are actively involved in their child's life and that the parties can communicate effectively about the child, among other factors.
Judges would also determine whether noncustodial parents have the ability to facilitate increased parent time, such as the ability to assist with after-school care, taking into consideration the distance between the former spouses' residences and the child's school.
Former Rep. Lorie Fowlke, a family law attorney, said members of the state Bar Association's family law section wanted to identify factors courts could consider when increased parent time would best serve the interests of children and the parties could agree to the conditions.
While 110 days of parent time is the minimum under state statute, "the joke in the industry is because we outlined the minimum schedule, it's become the maximum schedule," Fowlke said.
Providing another option in state statute is also important because half of divorcing couples represent themselves, filing their divorces online using options presented on electronic forms.
"If it's (the option presented in HB35) not in statute, it's not in the computer program," she said.
The bill would also allow noncustodial parents to pick up their child after school on Fridays and drop them off at school on Monday mornings, which reduces contact between former spouses, Snow said.
Julie Anderson, the mother of two adult sons who have been divorced, spoke in support of the bill. Anderson said her sons agreed to work with their former spouses to help curb conflict and legal expenses.
Her 12-year-old grandson has been dealing with his parents' divorce for 10 years and yet "he is a happy, well-adjusted child." He knows his parents love him and they will do whatever it takes to ensure his happiness, she said.
"Remember, our children are our future," she said.
Some lawmakers questioned whether providing another option would increase litigation as parents returned to court to amend divorce decrees.
Fowlke said some parents, as their children age and circumstances change, return to court now.
"A lot of times, a noncustodial parent doesn’t want a fight. They just want more time. This provides a vehicle for doing this," she said.
Just because couples divorce does not mean mothers and fathers are not interested in parenting, Snow said.
"This is an alternative to increase time with parent in a very narrow circumstance," he said.
HB35 now moves to the full House for its consideration.