Thursday, February 18, 2010

No-fault custody disputes

Ruth Bettelheim is a marriage and family therapist, writes this NY Times op-ed:
Given that reducing family conflict is good for children, the best way to protect them during divorce would be to minimize the acrimony of the proceedings. No-fault divorce, now practiced in every state except New York, has been one step toward this goal. But issues relating to children in divorce cases are still very often decided by long, heated contests between the parents. Custody disagreements are settled by a judge’s determination of what is in “the best interests of the child.” In practical terms, this means that both parents do their utmost to demonstrate that they are the better parent — and that the other one is worse, unfit or even abusive.

At stake are not only the participants’ self-esteem and their relationships with their children but also their financial security. As child support is often linked to the proportion of time the children spend with each parent, the days and hours of their future lives become tools for one parent to extract payment from the other. This is a recipe for warfare, with the children’s well-being both the disputed turf and the likely casualty.

What children need instead are no-fault custody proceedings — which could be accomplished with two changes to state family law. First, take the money out of the picture by establishing fixed formulas for child support that ensure the children are well taken care of in both homes, regardless of the number of days they spend in each. Second, defuse tension by requiring parents to enter mediation to find a custody solution that best meets the needs of all concerned.
The so-called no-fault divorce is a big hoax when kids are involved. Yes, you can get divorced unilaterally, but the child custody disputes are more contentious than ever.

Money drives a lot of disputes. There is a huge financial payoff in California for winning a child custody dispute. It can be worth a million dollars, tax-free.

Being a therapist, Bettelheim is a little naive about what can be accomplished by mediation. There still has to be some law to apply if the parents do not agree.

She is essentially saying that we would not need laws if everyone settled their disputes out of court. I am all in favor of settling out of court, but we still need laws.

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