Utah lawmakers have taken a major step forward in making the welfare of Utah children the most important element in deciding child custody.  The new law, which took effect in May, encourages a shared custody arrangement between both parents whenever possible.

Specifically, the law recommends a parent-time schedule of a minimum of 145 overnights with each parent. The previous law only required 110 days per year with the noncustodial parent. The increased child custody schedule is encouraged except when the arrangement is not in the best interest of the child as determined by numerous factors specified in the law.

Over the last century, as the legal landscape of divorce has changed from divorces based on the fault of one or both spouses to the relatively easier uncontested divorces, so has the criteria for determining which parent should have custody of the children.

Until about fifty years ago, courts used the “tender years” doctrine which said that children should be with their mother through their infancy and toddler years. Then the laws shifted to a vague criteria called “best interest of the child,” dividing custody based on a judge’s view of that definition which obviously would include any personal bias a judge had about which gender should raise children, as well as any specific circumstances in each case.

The best interest of the child doctrine still often favored the mother, leaving fathers with every other weekend and a weekday night to spend with the child. One child psychologist said that this basically put the father in the position of an uncle who saw the child from time-to-time but had no opportunity to build a parent-child bond.

Lobbyists for family organizations lauded the new law, pointing to evidence that children who have both parents involved in their lives are less likely to use drugs, get pregnant as teens and attempt suicide.

As the new law goes into effect, there will undoubtedly be a learning curve as divorcing spouses, judges and attorneys apply the new rules. Anyone going through a divorce in Utah will benefit from the advice of a family law attorney who is aware of these changing rules and can apply them to achieve a result that is truly best for both parents and the child.

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