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March 28, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve written several times recently about SB 668 in Florida that would reform alimony and parenting time laws there.  It passed both houses of the legislature by overwhelming margins.  But one thing I’ve said in my recent posts is wrong.  I said that the bill sits on Governor Rick Scott’s desk awaiting his signature.  It does not.  NPO’s “man in the Sunshine State,” Terry Power, informs me that over 100 other pieces of legislation got there first, so SB 668 has not been officially handed to the governor to sign or veto.

That means your calls and emails to the governor’s office are all the more important.  I’ll let everyone know when SB 668 officially hits his desk.

Meanwhile, one of the sponsors of the bill, Senator Tom Lee, has taken to the op-ed pages of the Tampa Bay Times to tell Floridians what SB 668 actually is and does (Tampa Bay Times, 3/21/16).  He did so because an editorial in the Times calling on Scott to veto the legislation was so flawed it cried out for correction (Tampa Bay Times, 3/11/16).  What Lee doesn’t mention, I will.  In addition to its flaws, the editorial was essentially an opinion in search of a justification.  An emptier piece would be hard to imagine.

But first, Senator Lee:

According to the editorial, the bill requires child custody to be split "50-50" between parents "unless a judge decides to make an adjustment by weighing 15 factors." The bill says nothing about a "50-50 split," and there are actually 20 factors in current law, which are all retained. The bill only requires a court to begin a custody determination with the premise that a child spend "approximately equal" amounts of time with each parent. This premise establishes a "starting point" for judicial decisionmaking. It does not eliminate judicial discretion. The premise also replaces the vague public policy that a child have "frequent and continuing contact" with both parents.

The editorial has subsequently been corrected to reflect the 20 factors Lee mentions instead of the 15 originally claimed.  You might think the writer would have actually read the bill before opposing it, but clearly he/she didn’t.  Such is the nature of the opposition to family court reform; they’ve got their opinion and they’re stickin’ to it irrespective of the facts.

That of course holds true in other ways delineated by Lee.  The notion that the bill “requires” a “50-50” split of parenting time is so much nonsense as again even a cursory glance at the bill demonstrates.  But, since the editorial writer felt it acceptable to simply make up claims about the bill, he/she went on to the article’s oddest notion of all.

The editorial unfairly suggests that the bill will cause a judge to order 50-50 time-sharing by default if the judge does not "want to do the hard work of investigating individual family situations." The bill states that "the court shall formulate a parenting plan and time-sharing schedule taking into account the best interest of the child after considering all of the relevant factors." A judge cannot simply ignore the requirement to consider all the relevant factors.

Yes, the Times piece somehow concluded that, if SB 668 becomes law, suddenly family court judges will miraculously become lazy.  Some of course already are, but where does the paper get this theory?  It’s confected out of nothing at all, simply made up.  Of course, as I’ve said too many times to count, that’s what happens when you have no real argument to make; you make things up and sometimes descend into pure fantasy.

That particular claim – weird as it is – stems from the old canard of the anti-dad crowd that equal parenting means a one-size-fits-all system of allotting parenting time.  That’s utter nonsense.  In fact, as Lee shows, many factors can be taken into consideration in deciding parenting time and, as always, parents are free to arrive at their own schedule to fit their unique needs.

The reality of parenting time decisions is that, if anything, the status quo is what’s one-size-fits-all.  Judges now apportion parenting time to non-custodial parents in a range of 14% - 24%.  It’s predictable as the sunrise as is the sex of the custodial and non-custodial parents.  Since 1993, nationwide, between 82% and 85% of primary custody has gone to mothers, i.e. zero statistical difference in 23 years.

But the main problem with the Times piece is less what it says than what it doesn’t say.  Lee leaps into the breach.

The bottom line is this: Children are better off when they have time for relationships with two decent and loving parents. The premise in the bill recognizes the importance of these relationships…

All too often, the vagaries of current law allow children to be used as leverage to extract concessions in divorce proceedings. That is certainly not in the best interests of Florida's children.

Oh, … kids!  The Times editorial forgot all about them and their welfare.  Hey, it’s an oversight anyone could make, particularly someone who’s dead set against children maintaining real relationships with both parents after they divorce.  Shamefully, it happens every time.  Those who oppose equal parenting routinely ignore children and their best interests, for the perfectly good reason that equal parenting promotes those interests.  So if you’re against shared parenting, it’s best not to mention the kids, and the editorial doesn’t.  Not one word.

Finally, Lee takes on the real reason for opposition to SB 668.

Admittedly, there are no silver bullets, but SB 668 was designed to limit the use of children as leverage. Perhaps that is why divorce lawyers have hired numerous lobbyists with connections to Gov. Rick Scott in an effort to persuade him to veto the bill.

Yes, the opposition to SB 668, as to similar bills in other states, has nothing to do with the specious arguments put forward.  They’re just window dressing.  No, it has to do with filthy lucre.  Lawyers make money on conflict and the current system exacerbates conflict in divorce.  Ergo, the lawyers see shared parenting as a threat to their ability to meet their yacht payments, so they’re opposed.  Domestic violence groups take to the bank the notion that fathers are brutal and violent and must be sidelined in their children’s lives.  And feminist groups oppose any reform that would reduce – even slightly – the transfer of wealth from men to women.  So naturally they oppose equal parenting that could reduce child support and alimony reform that would do the same for the spousal variety.

As to the original Times editorial itself, amazingly, it all but fails to make an argument – any argument – for the position it takes, that SB 668 is so defective that it needs to be scrapped.

It raises a single complaint against the alimony reform embodied in the bill.

But one of the more controversial parts of the legislation would allow alimony agreements to be renegotiated if the recipient's income rises by 10 percent. That trigger is far too low for spouses whose primary work had been child-rearing.

There’s a problem with that quibble, though.  As alimony law stands now, any judge at any time can modify the amount of alimony based on any change in the recipient’s income.  So SB 668 would provide a limitation of 10% where now there’s none.  It would raise the “bar” from zero to 10.  The editorial claims to be protecting women who receive alimony; in fact it’s doing the opposite.

So, it’s on to the parenting time provisions of SB 688.  As Lee pointed out, the sole complaint there is this:

This provision could make it too easy for judges who don't want to do the hard work of investigating individual family situations to rely on one-size-fits all terms.

And that, my friends, is it.  Those two cavils are the only problems the Times could find with the legislation that roughly two-thirds of the Florida Legislature voted in favor of.  The first is just plain wrong and the second seems to have been made up out of whole cloth.  The editorial calls the state’s divorce laws “ripe for reform,” but turns around and opposes moderate legislation that would harm few and help many, most importantly the children who are caught in the pitiless machinery of the divorce process.

Someone should ask whoever wrote the editorial this: “If this bill isn’t good enough for you, what would be?”  If divorce laws are “ripe for reform,” the Times owes readers some notion of what its editors think reform should look like.  But, like the state’s family lawyers (who at first pretended to support the bill, but who now oppose it), from whose playbook the editorial was taken, the Times refuses to say what it likes, only what it doesn’t like. 

This has been going on for many years now and the only conclusion to be drawn is that the opposition to reasonable family law reform has no alternative to offer but the status quo.  But the status quo is bad for everyone concerned (except stakeholders like family lawyers).  That’s why there’s such a tidal wave of support for reform, not only nationwide, but around the world.  If the opposition doesn’t want to help bring about a better world for kids, parents and courts alike, it should do the decent thing and get out of the way and let others do our work.

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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