Michigan State Representative Jim Runestad, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced legislation that would significantly change the practice of family law. Currently, the proposed legislation, known as HB 4691, has passed the House Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a vote in the full House of Representatives.
The current Child Custody Act of 1970 contains a multifactored “best interests” test, which helps courts determine what custody and parenting time arrangement would be best for the child in a particular dispute. The court is supposed to weigh each of the relevant factors and award custody to one parent or to both parents jointly.
The proposed bill, the Michigan Shared Parenting Act, would require the courts to award joint custody and substantially equal parenting time in custody disputes absent special circumstances. Those circumstances are reviewed under a modified best interests test. It eliminates some of the factors from the current Child Custody Act of 1970 that considered the length of time the child has lived in a stable and satisfactory environment, the permanence of a family unit of the existing or proposed home, and the home and school record of the child.
The new test adds the following factors to determine whether or not to award joint custody:
- history of the parents maintaining regular and ongoing contact with the child and the impact on a child if regular and ongoing contact with the parents is not maintained
- impacts on the child’s academics if regular and ongoing contact with both parents is not maintained
- whether there has been parental alienation
- whether either parent has made false claims of child abuse or domestic violence in a court proceeding
HB 4691 also alters what is known in the Child Custody Act as the “100 mile rule” and some provisions regarding child support.
The proposed bill has been met with both support and opposition in the legal community. Rebecca Shiemke, family law attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, believes the proposed bill would take focus off of the children. "Establishing presumptions really removes the focus in child custody disputes from what's best for the child to a parent's right to equal time with their child," noted Shiemke. However, Representative Runestad believes the focus on equal parenting would actually help children, stating, “we have study after study of the benefits of shared parenting. It’s a tremendous benefit for the children.”