SALT LAKE CITY — Parents seeking a divorce in Utah may soon have another legal option when deciding how much time their children will spend with them.
While parents already have the choice of agreeing on whatever schedule best meets their needs, the new option extends the rights of both parents, which is something the Family Law Section of the Utah State Bar feels is important.
The Utah House Judiciary Committee on Thursday narrowly passed HB314, which would amend current family law to provide an optional parent-time (visitation) schedule that may result in joint physical custody.
The newly proposed schedule would include 145 overnights and a set holiday schedule spent with the non-custodial parent, thus making him or her a chief figure in the child's life.
That's important to Dalane England, who has watched her husband struggle with custody arrangements involving two children from two previous marriages.
"Kids need to have a home. They need to have a place that they call their home," the Bountiful mother of six told the committee.
England said moving back and forth between a mother's home and a father's home, living out of a suitcase, "is no way for a child to grow up."
Consequently, the equally split time doesn't work from a child's point of view, said Elisa Seegmiller, who comes from what she calls a "broken home."
"You are in constant turmoil, going back and forth, with drastically different rules. You don't have a foundation, and it's hard to build strong moral values," she said. "It's not a healthy place for a child."
Traditionally, parent-time is scheduled based on mediation between the two parents, resulting in what works best for both parties. If an agreement cannot be reached, a judge can then impose a visitation schedule, which has typically been either what the statute terms as "the minimum standard," including one weekday each week, alternating weekends and a rotating holiday schedule, or a 50/50 time arrangement.
Allowing children to continue a strong relationship with both parents can be very important to the child, according to the Family Law Section of the Utah State Bar's website. When parents can't agree on a schedule, Utah law exists to assist a judge in determining what is best for the children involved.
"The judge should have the discretion to implement this possibility if he or she views it might be in the best interest of the children," said committee member Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City.
Stewart Ralphs, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, said parents represent themselves in 80 percent of divorce cases in Utah and will ultimately agree upon a schedule much like the one proposed in HB314. He said it is becoming the popular choice and should be a part of the law to remind judges it is available.
Mediation outside of court, including a written parenting plan from both parents, is required of any couple seeking a divorce in Utah, Ralphs said. One stipulation of the plan is that parents determine how they will deal with potential disputes in custody arrangements, as they almost always arise.
The proposed schedule, said bill sponsor Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, would likely only be used when parents can't come to an agreement on their own. It is modeled after what courts are already doing in most cases, he said, adding that it "levels the playing field" for non-custodial parents, giving them time with their children if they desire it.
"What we have to keep in mind is what is in the best interest of the children," England said. "Adults will just have to deal with the decisions they've made."
The bill received five supportive votes and four opposing from the committee. It now heads to the House for a vote from the full body.
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