By Chris Kramer
Find out about new state divorce laws passed throughout the country.
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Michigan legislators have placed before the state House Judiciary Committee a bill that would grant equal parenting time for fit parents after a divorce. House Bill 4564 was supported by 23 legislators in the House who believe that mandatory joint custody would be the most equitable arrangement in the majority of divorces. Opposing the bill is the Michigan National Organization for Women and the State Bar of Michigan, who argue that mandating joint custody would take away judicial discretion in favor of a situation that may not always be best for the child. An editorial in the Oakland County Press advocated for the bill, saying that in terms of equality for parents, the bill makes good sense.
A Superior Court judge in Rhode Island decided not to hear the divorce case of a same-sex couple in the state based on Rhode Island state statutes, but also questioned the constitutionality of the law that bars them from enjoying rights afforded to heterosexual couples in the state. The state statute creating the family court recognized marriage as only existing between a man and a woman, thereby inherently disallowing gay couples from the right to divorce. "It seems to me that this is a matter needing immediate attention and one that very plainly belongs in the hands of the legislature and the executive branch," Judge Patricia Hurst said. Hurst advised that challenging the law in a family court and even taking it to the Rhode Island Supreme Court could be potential recourses.
Child support typically covers living expenses for children that can cover a range of things. A new bill in Louisiana, House Bill 339, would make extracurricular activities outside normal living expenses a formalized part of the child support agreement between spouses. The payments for activities such as sports or music lessons would be additional to the standard support amount, a feature that some Senators argued would be too great a burden for some. Also, an additional amendment was added to the final bill to garnish the gambling winnings of spouses with overdue child support.
A state bar association task force in North Dakota is proposing major changes to the state's divorce and child custody laws in to modernize the statutes to ease disputes about custody and visitation rights. The proposal is based on agreeing to a parenting plan, a standard for many states. The new law would also contain a provision that would allow parents to avoid going back to court to draft a parenting plan, but would instead task a parenting coordinator to mediate input from both parents. Before a bill can be introduced with the proposed changes, it will be considered in committee, as soon as September 17.
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed into effect two bills that would benefit same-sex domestic partners by affording them rights similar to those enjoyed by other married couples. The first bill would allow a domestic partner to make medical and funeral decisions on behalf of a domestic partner if proper proof of "mutual interdependence" is shown (such as joint banking or property). The second bill includes domestic partners in exemptions of property transfer taxes when one partner dies, a right heretofore only granted to married couples. The passage of these bills comes on the heels of a decision last fall by the state's Supreme Court upholding the state's ban on same-sex marriages.
The Oklahoma state legislature voted unanimously to update a state statute protecting visitation rights for grandparents. The bill in question, House Bill 2469, would allow visitation rights to a grandparent if the grandchild's mother dies from complications related to the birth of a child. Further, the grandparent would also be allowed visitation rights if one of the child's parents is incarcerated for a felony conviction and the grandparent had a previous relationship with the grandchild. Legislators in support of the bill passed the measure to close a legal loophole that exists in the current statute that could deny grandparents visitation in certain cases.
North Carolina legislators are proposing fee increases for several state-controlled services including fees for marriage licenses and the fee for filing for divorce. There is also a proposed fee increase for newborn screening that would pay to check for more diseases. The increase in fees for marriage licenses, filing fees for divorce petitions and newborn screening fees are an attempt by lawmakers to avoid raising taxes, according to a report by the Charlotte Observer. Legislators in North Carolina say that these proposed fee hikes will be easier to vote for than the tax increases the state has seen in the past three budget revisions. The additional fees collected from divorce filing fees and marriage licenses will provide more money for the state domestic violence center fund.
New York Governor David Patterson has issued an order to all state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages that have been performed legally in other states. Patterson's new policies are being challenged in a lawsuit filed against him by five state lawmakers, but in the absence of a court-issued stay or injunction, New York state agencies will begin to recognize gay marriages performed in Massachusetts and California later this month and allow same-sex married couples to take advantage of the same rights that opposite-sex couples enjoy. If Patterson's order is allowed to stand, gay couples who have been legally married in other states may file joint tax returns, or file for divorce if they choose, in New York. Previously in New York, the Democratic-controlled Assembly passed legislation to allow gay marriages, but the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked such measures. The Sun reports that the Democrats are one seat away from now controlling the New York Senate, which could put New York in line to become the third state to allow same-sex marriages. For more on this issue, check out the following article:
Vermont Governor James Douglas recently signed two domestic violence bills into law. One of the bills increased penalties for domestic violence offenders and provides $880,000 in funding for programs and financial support for victims of domestic violence and increased supervised child visitation for families who have experienced incidents of domestic violence. The second bill provides funding for programs that provide mental health counseling for victims of unreported crimes. The $880,000 in revenue for the first bill will be raised through increased surcharges on criminal and judicial bureau fines and fees for marriage and civil union licenses, according to a report by the Bannington Banner.
Among a pile of bills related to veterans passed by the House in a pre-Memorial Day rush was a measure that would protect deployed members of the U.S. Armed Forces from losing custody of their kids because of their military service. The bill is in response to several cases around the country in which state family courts decided to change military service members' child custody orders while they were deployed, in some cases without notice, according to a report by the Air Force Times. The bill, HR 6048, would amend legal protections in the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act and prevent service members' military service from being used against them. Under the bill, family courts would only be allowed to make temporary changes in child custody arrangements when a service member is deployed, and only then if there is strong evidence that a change in the child custody order would be in the best interests of the child. Any temporary changes to custody orders made during a service member's deployment would be automatically voided when the service member returns home from duty. If the bill is passed, family courts would be prohibited from considering the likelihood of a service member's deployment when issuing child custody orders.
The Advocate Capitol News Bureau reported that legislators in Louisiana recently spent two hours debating before burying a bill that would level out child support payments for non-custodial parents who pay child support for more than one family. Supporters of the bill that was four years in the making said that the measure was necessary to eliminate the race to family court that Louisiana law currently supports. Currently, for instance, if a man has children with two different women, whichever mother files for child support first gets priority and any following petitions for child support gets the leftovers, so to speak, as the court uses the non-custodial parent's income after paying the first child support order to calculate the child support obligation for the remaining children. Lawmakers who opposed the bill voiced concerns that it provided little incentive for marriage and worried about the fact that the bill proposed calculating child support based on both parents sharing the financial burden of raising a child equally although child custody would not necessarily have to be equally divided.
A recent decision by the California state Supreme Court has made it legal for same-sex couples to be married with the same rights as heterosexual couples. The court decided 4-3 in favor of overturning the state's ban on same-sex marriage, arguing that nothing in the state's constitution prevented state courts from recognizing equal rights for couples of the same sex regarding marriage. The decision means that courts may start granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples beginning June 14. However, a vote on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only valid for heterosexual couples is on the verge of being included on ballots for the upcoming November elections, effectively trumping the court's decision in the matter. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has stated that he will do all he can to oppose the ballot measure and support the Supreme Court's decision on the matter.
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has recently signed a law into effect modifying the state's child support law to offset new governmental fees for collecting child support as well as providing low-income children in child support cases with medical care. A new federal mandate regarding fees caused the bill to enact a $25 annual fee for families that collect at least $167 in child support per month and are not on any kind of public assistance. The medical care provision would mandate that one or both parents pay for medical care, and that child support orders for families who receive public assistance must be reviewed every three years in order to ensure that these orders are being carried out.
Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona recently signed into law House Bill 2594 that modifies the duty of Child Protective Services in the state. The new law states that case workers must make a "good-faith effort" to obtain and obey court orders regarding child custody. The situation the bill addresses arose during a custody dispute involving a Tucson family, in which CPS case workers defied a court order awarding two children to the mother. The case workers advised that the father keep the children, and the children were murdered by the father and a girlfriend. The custody measure was one part of a package of CPS reforms.
Though this space is reserved for legislative updates, because of today's calendar date, a few regional and local perspectives regarding divorce on St. Valentine's Day.
In Phoenix, Arizona, Valentine's Day is a busy time for divorces, according to the Arizona Republic. An average of 19 more divorces are filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on Valentine's Day than on other days of the year. Last year, an average of 55 people per day filed for divorce, totaling 13,851. On Valentine's Day, the number was 76. The most in recent years was 1997, when an average of 51 people filed for divorce per day, and Valentine's Day was 96 divorce filings.
West Virginia may not boast the same empirical findings, but they're getting in on the divorce filings. Local Rock Station WKLC-FM is offering a free divorce paid for by the station to the couple who gives the best story on why they should be divorced.
In other places, however, the traditional day of love is treated in opposite fashion. Alabama's Madison County Circuit Judge William Bell has publicly declared that he will not sign divorce papers on February 14, a tradition that began three years ago. And this firm stance isn't just limited to the United States. The northeastern province of Roi Et in Thailand has also stated it will not recognize a divorce filing on Valentine's Day, and will encourage couples that arrive at the office to return home and rethink their plans.
After a decision in December in Rhode Island's state Supreme Court that went 3-2 against a couple seeking a same-sex divorce in the state, Rhode Island legislators will take up the debate of a proposed ordinance allowing same-sex divorce in the state, likely starting this week. House Majority Leader Gordon Fox has announced his intention of introducing such a bill as early as this week in order to provide the state congress to consider such a measure. According to Fox, the Supreme Court indicated that the ruling was indeed in the "legislative purview," paving the way for this current consideration.
The Supreme Court ruling and the controversy over this type of law stemmed from the situation of married couple Margaret Chambers and Cassandra Ormiston, who had been married in Massachusetts in 2004, a state that permits same-sex marriage. There is no law in Rhode Island that prohibits same-sex marriages, but the state has never officially recognized such unions under law. Therefore, this proposed bill would be the first step in recognizing same-sex marriages either way, either by banning or allowing them.
The state Judiciary Committee in Massachusetts recently held a hearing on the issue of whether or not a person who is scientifically proven to not be the biological parent of a child should be required to pay child support for that child. Supporters of bill H 1460 argue that a person who helped a child that is not a biological parent could be penalized for their care under the current law, but opponents of the bill - that is, proponents of the status quo - counter that mandating child support may often be in the best interests of the child if there is an established relationship even if the caretaker is not a biological parent.
Bill H 1437 would allow potential parents to adopt an embryo that is left over after in vitro fertilization if the couple allows it. Though this practice is currently done through fertilization clinics as an option for couples to leave their embryos to other parents, many believe the bill is a strategic move for pro-life supporters to grant embryos the same rights as children by using the language of "adoption."
The third bill introduced in Massachusetts is a measure to allow the child to be removed from custody of a parent if that parent is convicted of murdering the child's other parent. A few notable exceptions would be included in the bill, including if the child was mature enough and wanted to remain with the parent, and if there was a motivating factor of physical or sexual abuse by the deceased parent.
New Mexico legislators in the state House of Representatives squeaked through a bill with a vote of 33-31 that would grant homosexual couples the same rights as married couples under the guise of domestic partnerships. The bill would also recognize same-sex partnerships instated in other states. Additionally, the ability to form domestic partnerships would allow certain persons who choose not to marry for financial reasons, such as senior citizens and people with disabilities, those married rights. These rights would include ability to obtain medical insurance through the partner's health plan, ability to take medical leave to care for an ill partner, as well as legal issues such as property and inheritance rights. The bill must now pass the state Senate, which failed to pass a similar bill just last year.