Jacob Quade considered himself a hands-on dad to his young son and daughter. He coached and cheered on the sidelines at football games and gymnastic meets, took them fishing on the weekends and handled drop-off at the local elementary school most days. So when he and his wife split more than two years ago, the Lake Crystal, Minn., dad wanted equal parenting time.
"I've always been involved in their lives since the day they were born," Quade said. The idea of anything less than 50 percent was "devastating."
Reaching that goal was easier said than done. His wife argued for more time, and lawyers felt the law was on her side, he said. The exes, and their lawyers, headed to court. Now custody battles like Quade's have emerged as a subject of fierce debate at the State Capitol, where lawmakers are reviving proposals aimed at making 50-50 parental custody the norm. Legislation under consideration in both chambers would direct family law courts to use equal time as the starting point in determining parental custody rights, taking into consideration factors such as abuse, addiction or mental health.
Supporters say the change is long overdue and would promote healthy relationships between children and their divorcing parents.
But critics, including the family law section of the Minnesota State Bar Association, say the proposal is unnecessary and would make already difficult visitation and custody negotiations even more contentious.
"This is a nightmare," said Victoria Taylor, an attorney and legislative chair of the State Bar's family law section. "It gives all sorts of avenues for motions and parents to come into court and fight, fight, fight until their children are 18, and that's terrible for kids."
Fighting over parental rights
Determining the "best interest of the child" when parents split has been the subject of national debate for decades. Many early guidelines and rulings, including a 1985 Minnesota Supreme Court case, largely favored the mother as the primary caretaker. But rising divorce rates and shifts in family structures have forced courts and lawmakers to grapple with the best approach.
In recent years, a push for 50-50 parental rights, fueled by frustrated fathers and self-described men's rights groups, has gained momentum nationwide. Dozens of states have considered bills in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, Kentucky became the first state to make joint legal custody the default arrangement.
Minnesota's baseline of 25 percent time for the noncustodial parent has been under discussion for two decades. After a proposal to increase that standard was vetoed in 2012 by then-Gov. Mark Dayton, a working group came up with revised guidelines aimed at maximizing time with both parents. Data about how many cases result in a 50-50 parenting split are hard to come by, given the large number of agreements settled out of court. But family law attorneys say the new guidelines are already working to serve a child's interests while maximizing time with both parents.
"In order to inspire settlements by both parents you have to leave room for flexibility," Taylor said. "If you put a hard and fast 50 percent right on the onset, mediation is going to fail."
Advocates of the shared parenting bill believe that little has changed in Minnesota. Molly K. Olson, a Stillwater-area activist who has lobbied on the issue for decades, called the revised guidelines a "100 percent joke." She blames "divorce lawyers fighting for their livelihood" for blocking efforts to pass a 50-50 standard.
Tim McCusker co-founded the Minnesota Shared Parenting Action Group after becoming frustrated with his own visitation arrangement in the 1990s. He said he hasn't "heard great news" from dads seeking more time under the current standards.
"If [shared custody] is becoming the default, why not make it the default?" said McCusker, an engineer from Anoka.
State Sen. Karin Housley agrees. The St. Marys Point Republican has made the bill one of her top legislative priorities as she mulls another U.S. Senate run. She argues that her bill puts the kids' best interest at the forefront.
"I feel for the parents that are broken apart by our antiquated laws," she said. "There's nothing more important for kids than having two loving, stable parents in their lives, and when we legislate otherwise, it hurts our kids."
While research supports claims that children benefit from relationships with both parents, some experts dispute that a new standard will be a net gain. June Carbone, a University of Minnesota professor who studies family law, said while an equal split is ideal when possible, factors such as long commutes, work schedules and whether the child is nursing can make it difficult to achieve.
"It's just not practical to have a 50-50 division for all kids," said Carbone, who has not been involved in the state guidelines. But she called such proposals a "straitjacket" for already complex situations.
Critics also point to other potential consequences. A representative for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women recently testified against the bill, saying it could give abusive or controlling spouses more leverage. Others argue the impact on child support formulas could hurt parents struggling financially. Supporters say that the proposal still gives judges wide discretion to consider those factors.
"Either party can still argue why the other parent, whether they are abusive or not mentally capable or a deadbeat dad, shouldn't get 50 percent," Housley said. "We need to treat parents equally, and the current law does not treat parents equally"
Bill's fate unclear
This year's push for shared parenting has bipartisan support, but its fate is unclear. The House is considering including the change as part of a bigger policy package. Senate Judiciary Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, has no plans for hearing Housley's version this session. Housley said she is not deterred and will do what it takes to get it passed. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, believes there may be room for a compromise.
Advocates like Quade hope that will be the case. After two years of legal fights, Quade won permanent 50-50 parenting rights last year. His kids, now 9 and 12, shuffle between the two homes throughout the week. Equal split as the legal standard, he believes, would have saved tens of thousands of dollars and years of acrimony.
"I knew going into it I was going to fight for 50-50 custody and I wasn't going to stop until I got that," he said. "If this law was in place, it probably would have been done a lot faster."