Is Arizona’s presumption of equal or near-equal parenting time in the best interests of children? We think not.
Several years ago, revisions were made to certain Arizona Family Law statutes that guide the Court in making custody decisions involving children. These revisions have had a tremendous impact on how the Court determines custody, and in our opinion, it is not a positive one. The changes have resulted in Arizona now having what is essentially a legal presumption of equal decision-making and parenting time in every case that comes before the court. We believe this approach hurts children significantly more than it helps them. It is also unfair to both mothers and fathers.
When the Arizona Family Law statutes were revised, the following changes, among others, were made:
- The word “custody” was replaced with the terms “Legal Decision-Making” and “Parenting Time.” (A.R.S. §25-403)
- A provision was added providing that 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.” (A.R.S. §25-403.02)
- The provision which, in determining custody, had previously required the Court to consider which parent had historically been the child’s primary caregiver, was removed, and replaced with a requirement for judges to consider: “the past, present, and potential future relationship between the parent and the child.” (A.R.S. §25-403)
On its face, the changes made might seem positive. It is absolutely true that children are more successful when both of their parents are loving, active, and involved. When a divorce or breakup occurs, the courts should work to make sure that loving, active, and involved parents share in decision-making, and that the children get to spend plenty of time with both of them. However, not all parents are loving, active, and involved, and unfortunately that is something the changes in the statutes failed to sufficiently address.
Since the changes were enacted, there has been a significant shift in the way decisions are made regarding legal decision-making authority and parenting time. Arizona Family Court judges do their very best to assure that the interests of children are protected, however, a judge is required to apply the law as it is written by the legislature and interpreted by the higher courts. In 2019 Woyton v. Ward, the Court of Appeals ruled that it was an error for the trial court to designate Mother as the primary residential parent of the child based on her historical role as the child’s primary caregiver. The court stated that “As a general rule equal or near-equal parenting time is presumed to be in the child’s best interests. Thus, the court errs, as a matter of law, when it applies a presumption against equal parenting time.”
This ruling was troubling, as it solidified the idea that there is a legal presumption of equal parenting time. If a presumption against equal parenting is wrong, why wouldn’t a presumption for equal parenting time be just as wrong? In our opinion, there should be no such presumption. The problem with a legal presumption is that it can only be rebutted by “clear and convincing evidence.” Proving a matter by clear and convincing evidence can be mountain to climb. As mentioned earlier, not all parents are created equal. Awarding parenting time based on a mere presumption, when one of the parents may not be nearly as nurturing, capable, or involved as the other is a serious mistake that can harm a child in the long run.
Although the ruling in the Woyton case was rather harsh, another Court of Appeals case published just this year, Gonzalez-Gunter v. Gunter, may ameliorate the presumption of equal parenting time to some degree. In that case, the Court affirmed that “as a general rule equal or near-equal parenting time is presumed to be in a child’s best interest,” but it then went on to state that: “The Family Court, however, has discretion to determine parenting time based on all the evidence before it.” The Court, in Gonzalez, explained that although judges may be limited on the conditions they can place on how a parent may exercise their parenting time (like ordering supervised visitation, for example), they are not limited in their right to unevenly allocate the amount of one parent’s parenting time, if necessary. In other words, judges are not required to order equal decision-making authority and parenting time if the parents are not equal in their ability to care for the child. But some judges still do.
The Gonzalez-Gunter case is an important departure from the ruling in the Woyton case. However, in many family law cases, the the distinction addressed in Gonzalez is being ignored and the courts are awarding equal parenting time, even where the parents are not equally competent, caring, and nurturing. This may be due to way some judges view the statutory requirement to consider the “potential” of the parent who has not provided equal care. But it can render the important “Best Interests of the Child” standard essentially a meaningless catchphrase. For now, it appears that that parents’ rights too often trump children’s rights in Arizona Family Court.
In addition to the fact that we do not believe equal parenting time should be a legal presumption, we also believe that a greater emphasis should be placed who has provided primary care of the child than on “the … potential future relationship between the parent and the child.” It is true that when a divorce occurs, a parent who may have been the a stay-at-home mom or dad will probably have to work, and the other parent will have to take on more responsibility with the children. However, the problem with focusing on the potential future relationship is that every relationship has the “potential” to be great, but many don’t turn out that way. Similarly, every uninvolved parent has the potential to change and become more involved, but it doesn’t mean that they will. The best predictor of a future relationship is past history, so emphasizing potential over the actual history of the relationship, or even giving it equal weight, can be a huge mistake. Ultimately, when a father or mother is awarded equal parenting-time and never lives up to their potential, it is the children who will truly suffer the consequences.
In our opinion, a parent’s potential should be one of the factors the judge considers in determining what is in the best interest of the child(ren), but we believe it was wrong for the Arizona Legislature to remove “which parent has been the primary caregiver of the child” from the list of factors in A.R.S. §25-403. Doing so indicates that the change to the statute may have been more political than really about children and their best interests.
The care of children is too important to make broad assumptions, let alone instituting legal presumptions regarding decision-making and parenting time. In the real world, parents are not always equal caregivers. Sometimes the mother is the more responsible parent; sometimes it is the father who is the nurturer and is in a better position to provide for the children’s needs; and in many cases both parents are loving, capable caregivers who are willing and able to co-parent their children (which is obviously the best scenario). This is why each case should be decided on its own merits.
We believe that the Court should start with a blank slate in determining the child(ren)’s needs and which parent is better equipped to provide for those needs. If both parents are equally equipped, then there should be an award of equal parenting time and decision-making. However, where the best interests of the child would be served by one of the parents being given the majority of the decision-making authority and/or parenting time, then the Court should be able to make that ruling without having to overcome a presumption. The needs of the child should always come first.
By Gary Frank & Logan Matura
At the Law Firm of Gary J. Frank P.C., Gary Frank, Hanna Amar, and Logan Matura are strong litigators and compassionate counselors. Gary Frank is a Family Law Attorney with over 30 years of experience as a litigator and mediator. He has also acted in the capacity of a Judge Pro Tempore in the Maricopa County Superior Court, and served on the Governor’s Child Abuse Prevention Task Force. Law firm Partner, Hanna Amar is a highly-skilled attorney with a passion for Family Law and children’s issues. She has extensive courtroom experience, and is also a certified mediator. Hanna has also acted as the President of the Young Lawyer’s Division of the Maricopa County Bar Association. Associate Attorney Logan Matura received her Juris Doctor degree from New York Law School in Manhattan, NY. While in law school, she served as an intern for a Family Court judge in the Bronx, NY, and was a member of the Family Attorneys Mobilizing club. Our firm handles Family Law cases in the areas of divorce, custody (now called “Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), relocation (move-away), division of property, spousal and child support, modification actions, enforcement actions, grandparent and step-parent and non-parent rights, as well as other matters pertaining to families and children. If you are in need of a consultation, call us today at 602-383-3610; or you can contact us by email through our website at www.garyfranklaw.com. We look forward to hearing from you.