Custody laws changes began Jan. 1By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — Couples who get divorced beginning this coming year will find some new rules in place on how much time each gets with the kids.
Some of what will take effect Jan. 1 could be considered cosmetic. For example, the courts will no longer make decisions about who gets “physical custody’’ of the child and how much time is allowed for “visitation’’ with the other parent.
Instead, judges will issue rulings on “parenting time’’ for each.
But the law is written in a way that is likely to put fathers on a more equal footing for time with their children. And William Fabricius, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University, who was instrumental in crafting the changes, said that’s a good thing.
Fabricius, who told lawmakers he is an expert in divorce, said there is research which shows that the amount of parenting time a child has with his or her father after parents separate is closely related to whether they ever build a long-term close relationship.
“We now know from health research the stress in the parent-child relationship can set up long-term chronic, stress-related illnesses,’’ he said, including early death.
And he said that any child who does not have at least 35 percent of parenting time with the father in the seventh grade — when the research was done — will ultimately not have a good relationship in teen years.
Fabricius insisted that this need not be a “he wins, you lose’’ situation, saying a better relationship with the father does not detract from a child’s relationship with his or her mother.
The new law also reinforces some existing statutes that say judges are not supposed to consider the gender of the parent or the child in determining parenting time. That brought questions from Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, who wondered whether, at certain stages of development, more time with one parent of the same gender might not be appropriate.
“There’s no evidence I’ve seen for that,’’ he said.
Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, said even the parts of the legislation that appear to be little more than changes in terminology are important. For example, she said the court orders generally have a word for the time a non-custodial parent gets to spend with the child.
“We’ve called that ‘visitation,’ as if you’ not a parent,’’ Gray said, which suggests that the child only gets to visit.
“You get to spend time with you parent,’’ she said.
Ideally, Gray said, all these rules should not be necessary.
“What we really need is the wisdom of Solomon when parents go before the courts in a divorce situation,’’ she said. “That doesn’t always happen.’’
What the new laws do, Gray said, is reemphasize that the primary consideration is what is in the best interests of the child. And, generally speaking, she said that means time with both parents.
But not always.
“If there’s domestic violence in the family, maybe it isn’t in the best interests of the child to have equal parenting time,’’ she said.
The legislation also specifically requires a judge to consider the past, present and potential future relationship between the parent and child in determining parenting time. And it adds a new requirement that a child’s wishes as to parenting time and who gets to make legal decisions be considered if he or she is “of suitable age and maturity.’’
On the other side of the equation, the law allows a judge to consider whether a parent intentionally misled the court to case an unnecessary delay, add to the cost of litigation or to persuade the court to see things that parent’s way.
There also is a requirement that if a parent is not granted sole or joint legal decision making authority that the child still has “substantial, frequent, meaningful and continuing contact.’’ The only exception would be is if a judge, after a hearing, determines that parenting time “would endanger the child’s physical, mental, moral or emotional health.’’
If parents cannot agree on a plan for decision making or parenting time, each has to submit a proposed plan.
Other new legislation taking effect
Aside from the changes to child custody laws in divorce cases, only a handful of other measures become law on Jan. 1. That’s because most measures take effect automatically 90 days after the end of the session unless lawmakers specify otherwise.
One change that is taking effect has nothing to do with what lawmakers approved this year: The state minimum wage will be going up by 15 cents an hour, to $7.80. That compares with the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
That adjustment is automatic based on a 2006 voter-approved law which set the minimum wage for 2007 at $6.75. That was when the federal minimum wage was just $5.15 an hour.
More important, the Arizona law requires the state Industrial Commission to adjust that figure annually for inflation. For 2012, the commission pegged that at 1.7 percent.
And since the law requires figures to be rounded up to the next nickel, that translated to the 15 percent hike.
By contrast, changes in the federal minimum wage can be approved only by Congress.
The state has no figures for the number of people currently making less than $7.80 an hour. But the AFL-CIO and the National Employment Law Project say the figure is about 72,000 out of about 2.5 million Arizonans employed in non-farm jobs.
Employees who earn tips can legally be paid $3 an hour less than the minimum.
Other changes in law set to take effect Jan. 1:
• Removes a section of law that says party in civil suit can get legal fees on demonstration that claim or defense is harassment, groundless and not made in good faith. Proponent said harassment hard to prove. This leaves language that says legal fees can be awarded if claim or defense made without substantial justification.
• Increases the number of continuing education hours necessary to maintain a real estate broker’s license. The measure also alters course requirements.
• Alters the reporting requirements of political candidates who do not take public funds from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
• Requires retailers who sell drugs with pseudoephedrine, a precursor for methamphetamines, to use a nationwide electronic system that tracks sales to ensure that customers are not going from store to store to get around legal sales limits.
• Mandates the state Department of Economic Security to set up an Office of Child Welfare Investigations to employ investigators who have received some training in law enforcement, though they are not peace officers themselves.