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Should 50-50 child custody be Florida standard? House, Senate divided

Should 50-50 child custody in divorce cases become the standard in Florida?

Legislation is being pushed by the state Senate that would require a judge to split child custody approximately equally between divorcing parents unless the judge finds reasons not to, supported by written findings of fact.

The House has been cool to idea, as are some senators.

The proposal is “putting women at a major disadvantage, Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, said Tuesday.

“We’re putting them into a state where they have to hire an attorney, go back to court…and we’re going to have chaos in the courts,” Margolis said.

But Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, defended the legislation he is sponsoring as simply giving courts better guidelines for dealing with child custody issues. Current law is vague, he said, and actually forced families into costlier legal fights.

The child custody measure (SB 250) was approved 23-15 Tuesday in the Senate, and the chamber on Wednesday underscored its commitment to equal time for divorced parents with the Criminal and Civil Justice Budget committee’s passage of its alimony bill, which also includes the 50-50 child custody provision.

The proposed alimony changes have drawn criticism on their own from many women’s organizations, but there is more agreement between the two chambers on that issue than on child custody. The House alimony legislation (HB 455) steers clear of child custody issues altogether..

Under the Senate proposal, Lee said judges will base custody decisions on a wide range of criteria involving parenting ability that are outlined in the legislation. He insisted, “We don’t want to take discretion away from the courts.”

But the Senate proposal would direct courts to assume that it is in the best interest of a child to have equal time-sharing between parents, and includes that standard in the more sweeping bill overhauling alimony in Florida.

While the Senate approach doesn’t order 50-50 custody, it would require a judge to issue a written order explaining why unequal time-sharing was set, detailing specific reasons for the decision.

Several states, including Florida, already encourage joint custody. But the Senate proposal creates a legal presumption that roughly equal time-sharing of a minor child by both parents is in the best interest of the youngster.

A standoff between Lee and House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who opposed the child custody provisions, scuttled a similar alimony rewrite last year. The same dynamic could be in play now as lawmakers work toward a scheduled March 11 finish to the session.

“The House took the approach…very wisely, to narrowly scope this bill – to alimony,” Workman said Tuesday. “Anything outside of alimony is not germane to the bill.”

The House does have a child custody proposal (HB 553). But it’s gone nowhere.

“The House is looking for a pure alimony-related bill,” Workman said earlier. “It is not germane to any other family law issues such as time sharing.”

Lee, a divorced dad who went through a contentious custody fight, has been promoting similar legislation for several years. He voiced frustration with the House.

“If we’re going to have legislation that addresses dissolution of marriage issues, alimony, time sharing, child support….we’re going to have to have a package,” Lee said of his goal in working with the House.

“The process works best when we respect the priorities of each other,” he said.

Lee said his pitch that a working group of lawmakers and legal advisers be organized to attempt to develop a compromise was rejected by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

“Maybe they’re not interested in any of these reforms this year,” Lee shrugged.

Advocates for so-called shared-parenting laws argue that children are better served when they can spend equal amounts of time with both parents. They oppose laws that award custody to one parent, except in cases where there’s a history of abuse or substance abuse.

Opponents, though, say judges shouldn’t be directed to seek 50-50 custody awards, but rather need flexibility to determine custody arrangements that are in the best interest of children. They say courts should consider only the facts of individual cases without any prejudgment of the case.

Some family law experts already view courts as inclined to serve the interests of well-off men at the expense of the rest of the family.

“Each case is different,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. “Each comes with its own unique dynamics and, conceivable, someone could come in not being equal to the other.”

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