Massachusetts divorce lawyer Jason V. Owens checks in on the “child-centered family law”, which is awaiting a full vote before the Massachusetts House.
Last month, we provided an update on H.4107 – also known as the “Massachusetts Child-Centered Family Law”, which, at the time, was progressing through the Massachusetts house as the legislature’s July session approached. Today, we can report that the bill is currently one of 300 bills awaiting action in the House Committee on Bills in the Third Reading, which is chaired by Theodore C. Speliotis (D-Danvers). Whether and how a bill progresses from the Committee to a full vote is often a function of the support behind a bill, from the public, the bill’s sponsors and rank-and-file members of the House and Senate.
Predicting whether a bill will emerge from the Committee for a vote before the full House can be challenging. Last Wednesday morning, we blogged about the anxiety felt by supporters of the Massachusetts Alimony Re-Reform Bill. The ARRA’s backers were concerned the bill might never emerge from Chairman Speliotis‘s Committee for a vote. By Wednesday afternoon, the ARRA had passed the House by a unanimous, 156-0 vote. A bill’s fate can change that quickly.
The Child-Centered Family Law (H.4107) faces some challenges not present with the alimony bill. As discussed in last month’s blog, the very core of the shared custody bill was changed on March 30, 2016, when the bill was amended to insert the following language, in bold:
A child shall have periods of residing with and being under the care and responsibility of each parent; provided, however, that such periods shall be shared by the parents in such a way as to assure a child frequent, continued and developmentally appropriate contact with both parents and in accordance with the best interest of the child. Time with each parent may but shall not necessarily be equal. Unless the parents agree or the court determines otherwise, a child shall reside one-third of the time or more with each parent;provided, however, that nothing in this paragraph establishes a presumption that a child shall spend a minimum of one-third of the time or more with each parent.
The March amendment signals two possible problems for the bill. First, the bill being amended at all suggests it faces significant opposition in the legislature. Second, the clause eliminating presumptive shared physical custody is likely to damper the enthusiasm of the original bill’s backers by limiting the bill’s effect on Massachusetts law. The combination of determined opponents and discouraged supporters can spell doom for a bill mired in Committee. As the ARRA’s passage shows, however, a bill’s prospects can change quickly during a busy legislative session.
The next step for the bill would be a vote before the full House if it is released from Committee. If the bill passes in the House, it would be submitted to the Senate, where it would face additional scrutiny and possible amendments. All of this needs to happen before the summer recess begins on July 31, 2016 if the bill is likely to become law in Massachusetts.
UPDATE (7/13/16): I am not sure how we missed this, but it looks like the Boston Globe editorial board endorsed an outdated version of the bill on June 20, 2016:
Massachusetts’ child custody laws are outdated. TheChild-Centered Family Law bill acknowledges a widely held belief that isn’t always reflected in court orders: Children benefit from spending significant time with both parents. The legislation would encourage family-court judges to grant parents shared custody, with a child spending at least one-third of the time with each parent. The law would affect only the small portion of divorcing couples who rely on the courts for a custody agreement after negotiations or mediation fails — but those cases often drag on for months or years, causing irreparable damage to all involved.
The Globe’s endorsement does not appear particularly well thought out. First, it links to an outdated version of the bill, which was amended on March 30, 2016. Second, the Globe’s view that the bill “would affect only the small portion of divorcing couples who rely on the courts for a custody agreement after negotiations or mediation fails” is simply wrong. A great many contested custody cases are addressed by Probate and Family Court judges every single day, often at the temporary order stage. Moreover, the bill that the Globe endorsed – which, again, had been significantly amended three months before the Globe endorsed it – would have profoundly affected most new custody cases in Massachusetts had it passed as written. We were disappointed to see the Globe address such a complex and controversial issue in such a rushed and sloppy fashion.
About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.