A new Missouri law that went into effect Sunday is aimed at encouraging judges to award equal child custody time — but does not mandate 50-50 custody, as some mistakenly thought.
Springfield, Missouri, family attorney Andy Scholz said he studied the new law closely and provided a detailed update to the Missouri Bar.
Scholz said he has already heard from people who thought the new law might change their already-established custody arrangements.
"It will not change," Scholz said.
Scholz said he believes much of the confusion is because earlier drafts of the law called for a default parenting plan of a 50-50 custody split and that if one parent disagrees, the burden was on that parent to present evidence showing that equal custody was not in the best interest of the child.
"The final version of the law that was passed, it almost does the exact opposite," he said. "It makes it very clear that there should be no presumed default parenting plan, whether that be every other weekend for dad or even 50-50 split between the parents. It creates this encouragement and suggestion toward equal custody time between the two parents. But it does not mandate it."
Scholz said research shows 50-50 split custody is better for children of divorced parents.
The push for the new law started in the Cape Girardeau area where judges could apply a "default parenting plan" that typically gave the father significantly less time with the child.
With the passage of the new shared parenting law, judges cannot apply default parenting plans. Judges must hear evidence and then decide what is in the best interest of the child. Scholz said Greene County did not have any "default parenting plans" so this wasn't an issue locally.
The new law forbids judges from making custody decisions based on the gender of the parent or age of the child.
It also requires the Missouri court administrator to develop statewide guidelines for judges to "maximize to the highest degree the amount of time the child may spend with each parent," explained Linda Reutzel, a Cape Girardeau grandmother who led the effort to change the law.
"This law also has in it, the judge must put down written finding of facts and conclusions in all their decisions. So if they veer away from the maximum time away from each parent, they have to have specific reasons and it has to be written down," she said. "This allows anyone who disagrees with that to bring it up on appeal."
Though she was disappointed the stronger language didn't make it into the final version of the law, Reutzel said she hopes judges and lawyers realize the intent of the bill: for children to have greater relations with both parents. The law continues to make exceptions in cases involving drug use, spousal abuse, child abuse and abandonment.
Reutzel said her son essentially became "a visitor in his daughter's life when he had been hands-on from day one."
"It's time for a change," she said. "We know what fatherless homes reap on children."