1. Opinion

Column: Bill aims to limit children as leverage in divorces

Published Mar. 21, 2016

Editor's note: State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, responds to the March 14 Times editorial, "Scott should veto divorce changes."

In this great country, we are all entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. Here is what SB 668 actually says on the subject of time-sharing.

According to the editorial, the bill requires child custody to be split "50-50" between parents "unless a judge decides to make an adjustment by weighing 15 factors." The bill says nothing about a "50-50 split," and there are actually 20 factors in current law, which are all retained. The bill only requires a court to begin a custody determination with the premise that a child spend "approximately equal" amounts of time with each parent. This premise establishes a "starting point" for judicial decisionmaking. It does not eliminate judicial discretion. The premise also replaces the vague public policy that a child have "frequent and continuing contact" with both parents.

The editorial unfairly suggests that the bill will cause a judge to order 50-50 time-sharing by default if the judge does not "want to do the hard work of investigating individual family situations." The bill states that "the court shall formulate a parenting plan and time-sharing schedule taking into account the best interest of the child after considering all of the relevant factors." A judge cannot simply ignore the requirement to consider all the relevant factors.

The editorial's suggestion that judges might not "want to do the hard work of investigating individual family situations" assumes the worst of judges. I happen to believe that our judges will not take the easy road and shortchange families, but parties to a divorce deserve to be treated as equals until evidence to the contrary favors one parent over the other.

The bill's requirement that a court begin a custody determination with a premise favoring approximately equal time-sharing is not a significant change to existing law. The real change is the requirement that judges make detailed, written findings of fact that support and justify their custody determinations. Parents and children deserve a clear explanation for any judicial decision separating them from each other.

The bottom line is this: Children are better off when they have time for relationships with two decent and loving parents. The premise in the bill recognizes the importance of these relationships. Because ideal family relationships are not always possible, the bill requires courts to rely on the existing 20 statutory factors to determine the time-sharing arrangement that is in the best interests of each child.

All too often, the vagaries of current law allow children to be used as leverage to extract concessions in divorce proceedings. That is certainly not in the best interests of Florida's children. Admittedly, there are no silver bullets, but SB 668 was designed to limit the use of children as leverage. Perhaps that is why divorce lawyers have hired numerous lobbyists with connections to Gov. Rick Scott in an effort to persuade him to veto the bill.