By Carolyn Laine
Something unique happened in Minnesota this year.
It had to do with how parents figure out child custody and parenting time after they separate. In about 5 percent of these cases, the courts need to resolve it for the parents. The law the courts use to make decisions becomes the backdrop for how parents are encouraged to work it out. Seldom is it easy for parents, but it is made more difficult if the law is unclear.
As times change, bringing changes in families and in parenting roles, the Legislature needs to make adjustments in family law. But that, too, is seldom easy.
Too often, the legislative fight over how to provide solutions to child custody, parenting time and child support is often a macrocosm of the difficulty parents encounter, with distrust, anger, fear and power plays interfering.
Such was the case in Minnesota — until recently. After more than a dozen years of battling, something different has happened.
In 2012, the usual legislative fight over how to make these changes resulted in a gubernatorial veto. But the governor also encouraged a collaborative approach between the warring sides.
A family court judge heeded the call to collaboration and brought in a mediator skilled in major public policy issues. The Child Custody Dialogue Group that formed agreed to side-step our entrenched positions and developed 26 principles we all shared. We then examined where the current family law and procedures did not match our shared principles.
More than a year later, in 2014, we passed through the Minnesota Legislature a few changes, including giving the judge permission to reserve a later re-determination of parenting time to correspond with the child’s changing developmental needs. The group continued working on deeper issues, and this work culminated in the 2015 legislative changes that are considered to be the most significant change in Minnesota’s family law in two decades.
The “Best Interests of the Child” factors lie at the core of family law, but we found them to be out of date. By re-focusing them more clearly on the needs of the child, instead of comparing parents, we hope this assists parents and courts in focusing on what arrangement going forth best meets the child’s needs in each unique family situation.
An important new factor to be considered in the 12 interrelated factors is the benefit to the child in maximizing time with both parents and the detriment to limiting time with one parent. This factor emphasizes the appropriately substantial participation of both parents in a way that benefits the child on a case-by-case basis. It reflects a shared principle instead of a contentious position.
We found a number of other places in family law that needed clarification. For example, there now are better remedies when a parent is not following court orders in such areas as parenting time, tax filing or income disclosures. As a reminder of the importance of involving both parents, the law now says the 25 percent presumption of parenting time is a minimum level. And the right of both parents to access school, medical and legal information is clearly identified right in the custody order.