Shouldn’t responsible parents be considered equals?
Mayo – Sun Sentinel
Like divorce itself, the latest bill was messy and complicated. It roused strong emotions from supporters and detractors, who clashed in the governor’s office before Scott wielded his veto pen.
Supporters say they might try again next year, but may split the two main issues — alimony reform and child custody — into separate bills. At this point, I have to wonder if Scott will approve any divorce overhaul.
The key sticking point this time, according to Scott’s veto message: A starting premise that custody, now known as “time-sharing,” should be equally divided between parents. Scott made it seem as if the best interests of children would get lost.
But that wasn’t the case. Judges would still weigh 20 other factors before making a final determination. There’d still be plenty of chances for parents and their lawyers to tilt the custody scales in their favor.
The equal-time provision would be only a starting point, a way to level the playing field in an area that historically has been stacked against fathers.
“If people truly consider men and women as equals, then this [provision] shouldn’t be an issue,” said Lori Barkus, a family law attorney from Weston who supported the bill (SB 668). “A lot of people opposed to time-sharing are operating on emotions and outdated assumptions.”
As an example, check out this quote by bill opponent Adele Guadalupe to WPTV-Ch. 5 in West Palm Beach. “What did the father do? He contributed his sperm,” said Guadalupe, co-founder of women’s advocacy group Families Against Court Travesties. “The mother carried the baby for nine months. The mother had the nausea and threw up, probably had to give up her job. The mother had to give birth, the mother has to breastfeed the child. All of the sudden, the mother counts for nothing and the father has a 50-percent right to this child when it’s young? It goes against nature. It goes against justice.”
As the devoted and divorced father of a 10-year-old girl, I disagree. Biology precluded me from gestating or lactating, but I changed nearly all the dirty diapers and had plenty of bonding time with my daughter when she was young. Why shouldn’t I get a presumption of equality when it comes to future parenting rights during a divorce?
Fortunately, my ex and I were able to work out an amicable time-sharing arrangement through mediation. We submitted the parenting plan and a contract known as a “marital separation agreement” to a judge for approval.
For those who can’t work things out on their own, the divorce judge acts as the referee and state law is the rulebook.
As it stands, Florida divorce law is vague. It calls for children to have “frequent and continuing contact with both parents,” and says that “parental responsibility for a minor child [on matters such as education and health care] shall be shared by both parents,” unless a judge finds it would be “detrimental” to the child. Current law also says that the time-sharing schedule shouldn’t be predisposed to favor one side or the other, and should be determined by numerous factors.
That sounds a lot like the 50-50 starting premise, only with fuzzier language. And that’s a problem, according to Barkus, because some judges hew to the old way of thinking that children should spend more time with their mothers.
“There are inconsistencies throughout the state, depending on the judge,” Barkus told me.
The anti-father antipathy displayed by some of the bill opponents strikes me as sexist and antiquated.
Times and thinking change. How would these women feel if someone pushed a provision spelling out that mothers should teach kids about cooking, sewing and cleaning and that fathers should handle tools, cars and sports?
Barkus said recent research indicates more equitable time-sharing arrangements lead to better outcomes for children. But it might lead to worse finances for mothers who lose time with kids, because child-support payments are based on a formula pegged to custody time and income disparity. Barkus said even with 50-50 sharing, the higher earner would still have to pay child support.
Scott’s veto also means the current alimony system stays in place, with amounts set by the length of marriage and income levels. It is less onerous to end short and medium-term marriages, but leaving long-term marriages (17 years or longer) will remain expensive and can still end up forcing one side to pay until death. Depending on who’s doing the leaving and why, that might be appropriate.
But there shouldn’t be an incentive for an alimony recipient to unfairly milk an ex-spouse, either through avoiding work or never marrying again. Just as there shouldn’t be a child-custody system that’s stacked against willing and able fathers.
By Michael Mayo Sun Sentinel Columnist
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