IF OUR LEGAL SYSTEM WAS A GAME OF PING PONG, CHILDREN WOULD BE THE BALL

Ever since the Arizona legislature passed its new law replacing “custody” with “legal decision-making” and “parenting time” something has been bothering me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on — until today.  In reviewing the development of custody law for an upcoming trial, it occurred to me that the history of Family Law in America has always been a battle between “Mothers’ Rights” and “Fathers’ Rights.”  . . . But what about Children’s Rights?  Who speaks for them?

From the time this country began until the late 1800’s children were, from a legal standpoint, treated as property of their father.  Women had few legal rights, and when a divorce occurred, legal custody of the children was almost certain to be awarded to the father (despite the fact that the children had been raised by their mother).


That all changed at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was during this era when courts began accepting the view that children of tender years need the nurturing that only a mother could provide.  The vast majority of mothers, during that time period, remained in the home to care for children as their primary responsibility. (Of course, this was not necessarily by choice — social and legal barriers were entrenched in our society and women had few opportunities in the workforce.  As late as 1970 only 27 percent of women with children under the age of three were working.)  The “Tender Years Doctrine” almost assured that mothers would receive custody of young children in a divorce proceeding. However, it ignored the fact that fathers could be nurturers, too; and that in any particular case, the children’s father might be the better parent.


The Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements of the 1960’s created a sea change in our society.  Barriers that had existed for centuries began to slowly crumble. Women were accepted into college and entered the workforce in increasing numbers.  As opportunities for women grew, it became more common to see families with two working parents, and by 1985 more than 50% of mothers with children under three were working at jobs outside the home.


In the 1970’s the concept of “Joint Custody” was introduced into the Family Law lexicon.  Joint Custody assumed that divorced parents should share the rights and responsibilities of raising their mutual children.  The law provided that, in making its decision, the Court was to consider the “best interests” of the children based on a laundry list of factors contained in the statute.  As joint custody gained acceptance and eventually became the norm, fathers were given a greater role in making legal decisions for their children.  The “Tender Years Doctrine” was shelved by the courts.  


Now it is 2013 and a seismic shift in Family Law has once again taken place.  Arizona has amended its statutes to remove the term “custody” altogether.  That term has been replaced with the words “legal decision-making” and “parenting time.”  This sounds innocuous, but the effect may well be that in every contested “custody” proceeding, a judge will start with the assumption (although not a legal presumption) that the parents should be awarded equal time and decision-making rights with respect to the children.  The Court is still required to make its decision based on the “best interests” of the children — but it could be assumed (unless proven otherwise) that it is in the children’s best interests to divide parenting time and decision-making equally between the father and mother.


Is this fair?  I say no.  Determining what is best for a child does not lend itself to a “template” decision-making process.  Every family is unique.  Every case is different. Therefore, every case involving children should be determined on its own merits.  Mothers should not be favored.  Fathers should not be favored.  Instead, the Court should look closely into the facts and family dynamics of each individual case to determine the outcome that best meets the needs of the children.


The children.  

What is in the best interests of THE CHILDREN? 

That should be the compass that guides the Court in making its decision.


 

Gary Frank, has been a courtroom litigator in the Family Law arena for over thirty years, and is a strong and committed advocate for his clients.  In addition to being a litigation attorney, Mr. Frank has acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tem in the Maricopa County Superior Court.  This has given him an understanding of the inner-workings of the court, and a unique perspective  that most attorneys lack.  He has also acted, for many years, as a professional mediator of Family Law disputes.   We handle a full range of Family Law matters, including divorce, custody, spousal and child support, division of property and assets, modification and enforcement actions, as well paternity/maternity cases, grandparent or non-parent custody and visitation actions, and relocation/move-away cases.  If you are in need of a consultation regarding any area of Family Law, please do not hesitate to give our office a call today at 602-383-3610; or feel free to contact us through our web site at www.garyfranklaw.com; or by email at gary.frank@azbar.org.   We’d be happy to help you.

SAY GOODBYE TO CUSTODY

Custody is now a relic of the past.  The Arizona legislature has spoken, and the term “Custody” has been banished from our statutes.  Beginning on January 1, 2013 parents coming before our courts will not be awarded sole custody, or joint custody . . . or any kind of custody.  Custody is dead and buried.  It has been replaced by the terms: “Legal Decision-Making” and “Parenting Time.”  From now on, the Arizona courts will either enter an order awarding joint legal decision-making to both parents; or they will give one parent the right to make decisions regarding the children.  The court could also split the decision-making rights and responsibilities between the parents (for example, the mother might be given the right to make medical decisions while the father has the right to make educational decisions).
Some experts view this new arrangement as an earth-shaking philosophical shift that will lead to a significant change in the way the courts decide family law cases.  Other experts take the position that the wording of the statutes is merely a matter of semantics, and that things will not change much at all.  Only time will tell.  Over the next year, as the law unfolds, I will keep you apprised of how the courts are interpreting the newly revised statutes.
For several years now, there has been a trend in this and many other states to award joint custody (rather than sole custody) in the typical family law case; and, today, court orders for equal parenting time and decision-making have become commonplace.  This represents a real departure from the past, when the vast majority of cases ended up with the children living primarily with one parent.  The recent changes to Arizona family law seem to reflect an extension of this trend.  While the statute does not contain a specific “presumption” of equal time and decision-making, at least one judge who has worked on the new law believes that joint decision-making and equal parenting time will now be the “starting point” for judges in determining family law disputes. 
This new philosophy is revealed in the language added to A.R.S. §25-403.02.  Section B of the statute states: “Consistent with the child’s best interests in section 25-403 and sections 25-403.03, 25-403.04, and 25-403.05, the court shall adopt a parenting plan that provides for both parents to share legal decision-making regarding their child and that maximizes their respective parenting time.  The court shall not prefer a parent’s proposed plan because of the parent’s or child’s gender.” (Emphasis added.)
A.R.S. §25-403 contains the factors that the Court will use in deciding what type of parenting arrangement is in the best interests of a child.  In the past, the court considered, as a factor, “whether one parent, both parents or neither parent has provided primary care of the child.”  However, that factor has been removed from the new statute.  Instead, the court will now consider “the past, present and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.”  Some experts are disturbed by this change.  They argue that a parent’s track-record of providing primary care is important evidence that should be considered by the court in determining the type of parenting arrangement that would be in a child’s best interests.  Other experts disagree and point out that after the divorce, both the father and the mother will probably have to work full-time, and each of them will be required to “step-up” and become single parents. Therefore, in making its decision, the court should consider not only the past and present, but also the anticipated future relationship between the parents and the children.  They argue that because a parent was not the primary caregiver in the past does not mean that he/she is incapable of nurturing and providing excellent care of the children in the future.  This issue will certainly be a hotly contested one in family law litigation during the coming year.
Another new factor for the court to consider in applying A.R.S. §25-403 is contained in Section 7.  This section states that, in deciding which type of parenting arrangement is in the children’s best interests, the judge shall consider “whether one parent intentionally misled the court to cause an unnecessary delay, to increase the cost of litigation or to persuade the court to give a legal decision-making or a parenting time preference to that parent.”   The apparent purpose of the new provision is to place both parents on notice that if either one of them makes a false or improper allegation, or attempts to expand or delay the litigation, or acts in an unreasonable manner, it could be a basis for the court to take legal decision-making and/or parenting time away from that parent.  (To put it in terms of the old statute, if the judge believes you have acted unreasonably during the litigation, it could result in you losing custody of your children.)
Domestic violence continues to be an important factor that the court will consider in making its determination of legal decision-making and parenting time.  But based on the language of the new statute, the presence of domestic violence now takes on even greater importance.  The legislature has added a new factor to A.R.S. §25-403 which requires that the court shall consider “whether there has been domestic violence or child abuse pursuant to section 25-402.03.”  That section mandates that “joint legal decision-making shall not be awarded if the court makes a finding of the existence of significant domestic violence pursuant to section 13-3601 or if the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that there has been a significant history of domestic violence.  The statute also states that “the court shall consider evidence of domestic violence as being contrary to the best interests of the child.”  Under the law, abuse of a spouse is considered to be akin to child abuse, leading to “a rebuttable presumption that that an award of sole or joint legal decision-making to the parent who committed the act of domestic violence is contrary to the child’s best interests.”
Under A.R.S. §25-403 if the court determines that a parent has abused drugs or alcohol or has been convicted of a substance abuse offense within twelve months before a petition or request for legal decision-making or parenting time is filed, there is a rebuttable presumption that sole or joint legal decision-making by that parent is not in the child’s best interests.  What constitutes “abuse” of drugs or alcohol is not defined in the statute.  The issue will surely be the subject of much litigation in 2013 and beyond.

The Arizona legislature made a number of other important changes, as well, especially in the area of Third Party Rights (such as grandparent and non-parent visitation and legal decision-making); and in the area of Sanctions for Litigation Misconduct. 

Arizona’s new approach to what was formerly known as “custody” is groundbreaking.  It is at the forefront of a growing national trend which views divorced parents as partners in raising children.  But is this view realistic?  Will it protect the best interests of children in divorce cases, or will it hurt them?  The answers to these questions will be determined as the new law unfolds.


Gary J. Frank is a litigation attorney and mediator with over thirty years of Family Law experience in dealing in divorce, custody, and parenting issues. Mr. Frank has served on the Governor’s Task Force for Prevention of Child Abuse, and has received a Volunteer Lawyer award from the Maricopa County Bar Association for his work with children. For many years he acted as a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, which gave him an insight into the inner workings of the courts that many attorneys lack. He can be reached by telephone (602-383-3610); or by email at gary.frank@azbar.org; or through his website at www.garyfranklaw.com. If you are in need of a consultation regarding any area of Family Law, please do not hesitate to contact us today.


 

PARENTING CLASSES ARE FUN AND HELPFUL


I know a woman who has a degree in Early Childhood Education & Child Development.  She graduated from college with high honors.  Yet, she attended parenting classes throughout the entire time she was raising her children – classes on parenting toddlers; young children; “tweens”; and teenagers.  She could have taught the class.  Why did she join a parenting group and continue to classes go all those years?  The reason – because it made her a better parent. 

WHAT CAN A PARENTING GROUP OFFER?

There is a common misconception that parenting classes are for bad parents.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  People who join parenting groups are generally excellent parents who love their children enough to want to become even better.

I recommend to all my clients that they consider joining a parenting group and signing up for a class.  Once they’ve done it, the reaction I usually get is:  I love this group!  I’ve met some great new people who have kids the same age as mine.  They’re really supportive and we’re becoming friends.  And the class is so interesting — and FUN!”

Parenting classes are not like going to school.  (No boring lectures.  No homework.  No tests.)  Instead, it’s a chance to get together with other parents who are going through similar experiences with their children.  It’s a chance to talk and share ideas.  

Many of the best Valley parenting groups meet for an hour or so, once a week or every other week, at times that are convenient for parents.  Some classes are held at night.  Most of the parenting groups provide babysitting and serve food or refreshments.  The groups are generally run by a child development expert.  A different topic is covered for each class period (such as how to deal with tantrums, how to get your kids to do their homework, kids and computers, etc. – the range of topics is wide open, and many are suggested by the parents, themselves).  The “teacher” will give a brief overview of the topic, and then the rest of the session will be an open-ended, free-flowing discussion with the parents sharing their ideas and input.  It’s exciting to know that other families are dealing with the same issues that you are.  You can get some excellent tips on what works, and what doesn’t, from other parents – and you can make suggestions of your own.  This is a great way to learn new ideas and make new friends.  Both Mothers and Fathers are welcome.

HOW A PARENTING CLASS CAN HELP YOU IN A CONTESTED CUSTODY CASE

As a Family Law Attorney, I sometimes have an ulterior motive for recommending a parenting class to a client (even for the ones whom I know are excellent parents).  In a contested divorce and/or custody case, the power to decide which parent will be awarded custody rests in the hands of the Family Court Judge.   It is the Judge who will determine which parent is the “better parent” for custody purposes, and whether it would be in the best interests of the child to live with Mother or Father.  The Judge will decide whether joint custody or sole custody is the best arrangement; whether there should be a “primary residential parent,” or whether the parenting time should be shared equally; whether one parent or both parents should make medical, educational, religious, and other major decisions affecting the child, etc.  By joining a parenting group, you are not only going to gain new skills that will make you a better parent – but you will send a message to the Judge that you are a highly motivated parent, and that you care enough about the children to make an extra effort.  So, it’s a “Win-Win” situation.  You can enhance your chances of impressing the Judge and, at the same time, become a more skilled, competent parent.  What could be better?

WHERE DO I FIND A GOOD PARENTING GROUP

There are a number of excellent parenting groups around the Valley.  Two of the best, and most well-established, are:

Scottsdale Parenting Group 
http://www.scottsdaleparentinggroup.com/
North Central Parenting Group
http://www.ncpgaz.org/

If you are interested in having fun, meeting new people with like-interests, and becoming a better parent, look into joining a parenting group today.
Gary J. Frank has a wealth of experience dealing with parents and parenting issues in the Family Court.  If you would like some ideas on parenting classes, or if you are in need of a consultation regarding any other area of Family Law, please do not hesitate to contact us by telephone (602-383-3610) or by email through our website.  We look forward to hearing from you. 

IS ARIZONA’S NEW “CUSTODY” LAW HURTING CHILDREN?

During the past year, Arizona Family Law statues were revised.  Some legal experts believe the changes reflect a trend in Arizona, and in many other states, to use 50/50 decision-making and parenting-time as a starting point in assessing the parenting arrangement. 

In Arizona, the new revisions removed the word “custody” from the Family Law statutes entirely, and replaced it with the terms “legal decision-making” and “parenting-time.”  Other significant revisions to the law were made, as well.  For instance, both the old statute and the new one provide a list of factors that the court shall consider in deciding legal decision-making and parenting time.  For many years, the judge would consider “whether one parent, both parents, or neither parent has provided primary care of the child.”  But that factor was removed when the statute was revised.  Now the judge is required to consider “the past, present, and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.”  
The reason this is important is that while, in the past, the judge would consider which parent had actually provided “primary care” of the children, the new statute places an emphasis on other parent’s potentialfor being able to care for them.  There is some logic to the change.  When two people are married they may have the luxury of being able to have one parent stay at home, or work part-time, and provide primary care of the children; however, after the divorce both parents will probably have to work full-time, and each will become a “single parent.”  If both parents are working full-time, then an equal parenting arrangement might make sense.  But, in my opinion, there is a danger in making a blanket assumption that such an arrangement would be best for the children.  Examining a parent’s capability is fine; but relying on a parent’s “potential” can be speculative, since it is based on supposition and not fact.  The reason one parent was primarily in charge of parenting during the marriage may have had less to do with work schedules than the fact that the “other parent” was not as interested in, or not as capable of, being an active and engaged parent.  To give that parent equal decision-making, and equal parenting-time, would be contrary to the children’s best interests.
The big question is whether Arizona’s statutory revision will have the effect of making 50/50 the “default” parenting arrangement, or the “starting point” in the Court’s analysis.  In my own experience – and according to attorneys with whom I have spoken — that is exactly what is happening in many cases.  Today a judge might start with a 50/50 arrangement in mind, and move from there to more parenting- time and/or decision-making for mother, or for father, depending on the facts and circumstances of the case. 
The change brings Arizona in line with many other states, but I believe this shift in philosophy is a mistake.  While “best interests of the child” is still the deciding factor in a judge’s decision, I am concerned that courts are increasingly moving in the direction of a “template” decision that applies across the board and will be ordered unless a litigant can prove that using the template would be harmful to the children.  Rather than using a “template,” or a “starting point,” or “default” option, the Court should judge each case on its own merits, without any preconceived notions.  To do otherwise could lead to a decision that does not truly serve the “best interests” of the children.  It might even lead to a decision that hurts them.
We must keep in mind that “Children’s Rights” should always trump “Parents’ Rights.” 

Gary J. Frank is an attorney and mediator with over thirty years of Family Law experience in dealing in divorcecustody, and parenting issues. For many years he acted as a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, which gave him an insight into the inner workings of the courts that many attorneys lack.  His office is located in the Biltmore area of central Phoenix, with satellite offices in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, Arizona.  He can be reached by telephone (602-383-3610); or by email at gary.frank@azbar.org.  You can also reach him through his website at www.garyfranklaw.com.  If you are in need of a consultation regarding any area of Family Law, contact us today.