New law removes old custody labelsNATALIE NEYSA ALUND
Visitation. Primary parent. Secondary parent. Legal terms like these will soon be eliminated from divorce and separation proceedings. That's because on Wednesday, Oct. 1, a new law goes into effect in Florida that removes those labels from the state statute and creates new terms. Previously, Florida courts identified a primary and secondary parent; children lived with the former and visited the latter. But next month custody will be called "shared parental responsibility" and visitation will be called "time sharing."
The new law is intended to promote co-parenting, said Greg Lewen, an attorney who handles divorce cases throughout the state, including in Sarasota. "These labels become very problematic for the children and the parents getting divorced, and this is a progressive step forward," Lewen said. "Visitation shows you don't really have a home at that other person's residence. Instead you take a toothbrush. . . . If you think about it, you come in as a visitor." "When you think about divorce and custody, somebody is going to own this child like they own a piece of property and that is destructive. What we've done is said . . . it takes two to parent."
Because labels will be stripped, something was needed to govern the relationships. So moms and dads will be required to craft parenting plans, which will designate parental responsibilities and put parents on an even playing field. Under the new law, they will submit a parenting plan to the court. If they can't agree, a judge will decide the time-sharing schedule. "I feel like my prayers have been answered." said Stephen Pere, of Sarasota, who has a temporary visitation schedule for his 2-year-old daughter. For two years, Pere — never married — spent two overnights a month with his daughter. Her mom gets her the rest of the time, he said. "I've been wanting shared parenting time with our child since her birth," said Pere. "Hopefully my prayers and that of many other parents will be answered." Robert Levine, of Sarasota, also welcomes the new law.
"I hope it gives me and other fathers who have shown they can parent more child time sharing than every other weekend and a Wednesday night," said Levine, whose wife filed for divorce and wants be the primary parent of their 7-year-old daughter. "I do not support that," said Levine, 55. "I'm a good father, I can flex my schedule. I would like to be considered for equal share." Expecting that the bill would pass, the custody and visitation guidelines committee of the Family Law Advisory Group of the 12th Judicial Circuit developed proposed parenting plans. The committee originally formed to revise already existing shared parental responsibility guidelines created in 2002. The four optional parenting plans — basic, long-distant, highly structured and safety focused — contain the detail and diversity contemplated by the state statute, said Michelle Artman-Smith, 12th Circuit family court manager.
As a supplement to each parenting plan, the circuit created "Instructions and Assessments for Your Parenting Plan" to assist parties in making the most appropriate selection, Artman-Smith said. The family law section of the Florida Bar is reviewing the local 12th Circuit's plans to determine if it wants the Florida Supreme Court to adopt them statewide, said Judge Diana Moreland, chair of the local custody and visitation guidelines committee. "We started 15 months ago with the idea of addressing the needs of our local visitation guidelines, only to have our parenting plan goals be the same as those mandated by recent legislature," Moreland said. "The flood of phone calls we get saying (other circuits) are incorporating our plans is a huge accomplishment. I know it is something our circuit can be proud of." Parenting plans, Pere said, are in the best interest of the child.
"These new plans, as opposed to what existed, spell out so many details . . . as far as holidays, pick up, drop off, so it will reduce any manipulation," said Pere. "I don't want to be a visiting dad — visiting is for grandparents, relatives and friends," Pere said. "I hope that I will be able to get substantial, equal time sharing with my daughter." The primary goal, Moreland said, is to assist those individuals representing themselves by fashioning a legally binding parenting plan that meets their particular needs. "In addition, we hope the variety of plans will assist all jurists faced with unrepresented litigants, focus the litigants' attention and create thoughtful parenting plans which will meet the specific needs of that family appearing in front of them," Moreland said.
Florida is the first state to change the language, said Elisha D. Roy, a West Palm Beach divorce attorney who conducted research for the new law. Currently, 27 states have proposed parenting plans to be used as guidelines, said Roy, who chaired the Florida Bar's Family Law Legislative Committee this past session. "This is a giant step into the future for Florida families in meeting the goal of a less adversarial process for dealing with the dissolution of not just marriage, but of the child's family," Roy said. Removing the previous labels, she said, will allow attorneys to focus their client's concentration on making decisions about what is best for their children and their families as opposed to fighting over meaningless labels.
In the end, parents might divorce, but the law reminds them they're not divorcing their kids, Roy said. Just because this law goes into effect this week doesn't mean parents who already have court-ordered parental designation — primary or secondary parent — and visitation guidelines can have them changed.
"People seeking modification would likely still have to show substantial change of circumstances affecting the best interest of the children," Moreland said. In the end, whether a person's previous court order warrants modification is up to the presiding family trial judge, Artman-Smith said. Lewen said some people may look at the new law and try to manipulate it.
"It will give them an opportunity to say I want more in the parenting plan," he said. "The safeguard is the statute still provides for a number of specific factors for the courts to use in determining how the parenting plan should be created for a particular family. Just because there is a parenting plan doesn't mean one parent can't get 99 percent of the time and other some parents get supervised visitation on a very short leash."
Debra Carter, a Bradenton psychologist who helped develop the 12th Circuit's proposed parenting plans, said five factors should be considered when developing parenting plans — minimizing loss, maximizing e relationships, ensuring security, avoiding interparental conflict and acknowledging age-related needs. Children, she said, benefit from having predictable, positive times with their parents.
"The needs they get met from a mother are different than the needs they get met from a father," Carter said. "But one is not more important than the other, they need both." In the end, Levine said the law might prove to be a little of an uphill battle.
"But if these fathers show they're capable . . . that the father and mother can show they're both focused on the child's needs as No. 1, it's going to work out," he said.