Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bill revamps child custody laws in N.D.

By Janell Cole , N.D. Capitol Bureau , The Jamestown Sun
Published Tuesday, January 20, 2009

BISMARCK — Current child custody law in North Dakota “is in desperate need of improvement,” a legislator who helped lead a study told a Senate committee Monday.

Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, headed an interim committee that studied the issue after the 2007 Legislature.

The committee produced Senate Bill 2042, which proposes to take much of the animosity and repeat court appearances out of child custody cases. The study followed the defeat of a 2006 initiated measure that would have mandated shared parenting.

The bill got a hearing Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which took no immediate action.

The bill does four main things:

* Changes terminology in present law that refers to “custodial parent,” “non-custodial parent” and “visitation.” New terms are “primary residential responsibility” and “parenting time.” It also will refer to “decision-making responsibilities” and “parenting schedule.”

* Mandates parents in court with child custody issues — whether a married couple that is divorcing or a couple that never married but share children — must have a specific parenting plan they’ve mutually created and agreed to, or the court will write one for them. Plans must cover how the parents will handle routine or day-to-day decision-ma-king about their children’s lives, how they’ll make major decisions on education, health care and religion, schedule holidays, summers, and transportation for exchanges of the children.

* Allows parents who have disagreements to go to a parenting coordinator to act as a mediator. If the couple can’t agree with the aid of the coordinator, the coordinator can make a binding decision. The idea is that if parents are disagreeing about, for instance, who has the children for Thanksgiving, the parenting coordinator may help them come to an agreement before Thanksgiving, rather than going to court.

“It’s a start,” Meyer said. “And we’re very aware this will not solve everyone’s problems.”

A task force of the State Bar Association of North Dakota wrote the bill. Sen. Tom Fiebiger, D-Fargo, was on the task force and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sherry Mills Moore of Bismarck, who headed the task force, said the bill doesn’t address child support issues.

A Bismarck woman who was divorced in 1993 testified against the bill, saying she believed it would only mean more legal bills for parents who are already paying attorneys in the divorce or custody cases.

Nancy Carlson predicted the new law would give too much power and too little accountability to the parenting coordinators.

“There are too many what-ifs,” she told the senators. “Who am I supposed to tell if I am unhappy with the coordinator?” Carlson ask-ed.

Moore didn’t rebut Carlson’s testimony during the hearing but said later that Carlson is confusing a mediation pilot project used for divorces in some counties with the parenting coordinator proposal. The use of the coordinator is strictly voluntary, as a way to avoid the much higher costs of hiring a lawyer to go back to court, which would also take longer.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Jamestown Sun

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