Even with a blizzard raging citizens packed a committee Wednesday evening to testify on a bill tilting courts toward favoring joint legal custody in divorce and separation cases. The compromise bill hammered out by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, however allayed the concerns of many by changing the bill to have courts favor joint legal custody and not joint physical custody.
Froerer says the bill’s original incarnation sought to make the presumption in Utah courts that joint physical and legal custody was the standard courts should pursue for the sake of trying to keep families together and involved in raising their children. But tilting the scales of justice in favor of joint physical custody outraged many who worried that that could affect child support payments and work against custodial parents.
Instead the substituted House Bill 107 bill was amended to only allow the courts to err on the side of joint legal custody, a standard which doesn’t involve actual time sharing of child custody between parents. Rather joint legal custody simply allows parents to share in making a major life decisions for their children such as healthcare decisions as well as choosing which schools or churches to attend. The bill included language to say that the presumption of could be undone if certain situations were proven to the court such as domestic violence problems by one of the parents.
Numerous citizens braved the weather to speak for the bill including Todd Rupper, a citizen who says he got joint legal and physical custody of his daughter only after 10 years of costly litigation. “As a firefighter I have found that if you remove the fuel you kill the fire,” Rupper said. “By going as far as making joint legal and joint physical custody the presumption, you kill the fire--because these custody issues are being used as a weapon to argue against property matters in a divorce, as a result kids get involved and it harms the kids immensely.”
Stewart Ralphs, attorney and director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, argued however, that the presumption would only benefit divorce attorneys by increasing litigation of those who would be fighting against the presumption.
In interview with City Weekly, Ralphs says joint legal custody is a good measure in most cases but that doesn’t mean it’s a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Probably the majority of cases are appropriate for joint legal custody, but its not all,” Ralphs says. “So any time by public policy there is inserted a presumption then the scales have been tipped. I would not favor any type of presumption. When a family splits you need to make decisions based on what the child [needs].”
Still the Senate Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee liked the compromise and moved to favorably pass out the bill.
To find out who your legislator is so you can contact them about this bill click here. To contact Rep. Gage Froerer about his HB 107 click here. For more updates from the 2012 Legislature follow @EricSPeterson on Twitter.