Absent reports of domestic violence, judges would be required to award joint legal custody of children to divorcing parents under a bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee today.

With the standard of parenting changing dramatically over the past 40 years — from including same-sex couples marriage to an increasing number of people having children out of wedlock — reform is needed to remove discretion from judges in child custody cases, said state Rep. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who sponsored the legislation.

“We looked at county by county statistics on what happens in custody situations and what we found out is that the custody arrangements are not determined by the kind of parent that you are, but the judge in the county,” he said. “We have study after study of the benefits of shared parenting. It’s a tremendous benefit for the children.”

But the bill aroused a flood of opposition from judges, advocates against domestic violence, family court employees and the family law section of the State Bar of Michigan.

“This bill presumes that one form of custody is best for all families and that’s equal time,” said Rebecca Shiemke, of the Michigan Poverty Law program. “And that’s not necessarily true.”

Logistically, shared parenting time would make it difficult for some parents to find jobs, children could feel lost between two households and child support awards could become a bargaining chip for a parent who doesn’t want to pay a higher amount, she said.

“Some studies report that children complain that they don’t feel they have their own home in shared custody situations. We’re a much more mobile society now and with a focus on parents needing to work and have to split time with their children, it’s going to make it harder for parents to find work,” Shiemke said.

And child support is based on the number of overnights the parent has with the child. The bill would require that no parent receive more than 200 overnights with their children in a year.

“That would reduce the child support burden that one parent would have to pay to the other,” Shiemke said. “So a parent could get a lower child support obligation and then just not exercise their equal time.”

The bill would:

  • Require a judge to grant joint legal custody and substantially equal parenting time, unless there’s a preponderance of evidence of domestic violence in the family.
  • Prohibit a parent from moving more than 80 miles away from the other parent.
  • If a child is 16 or older, the child's preference on custody has to be given weight by the judge.

After only one day of testimony, the bill — HB 4691 — passed the committee on a 6-3 party line vote with Republicans voting for it and Democrats opposing. Runestad said a vote on the bill is not expected in the full House of Representatives before they adjourn for the summer later this week.

"I want to continue the dialogue with all the stakeholders so that nobody feels left out," he said.