Adults fighting child-custody battles must come up with a plan to care for their children sooner -- and provide greater detail -- under a new amendment to state law.
The amendment, which took effect Aug. 20, aims to help children receive better parenting and more stability during and after a marital split, according to local attorneys. It also will require parents and their lawyers to consider their children's welfare separate and apart from other negotiations associated with a separation or divorce.
"It makes parties, as well as attorneys, proactively contemplate co-parenting," said Mary Fran Quendlen of Quendlen and Merrifield law firm in Beaufort. "In my opinion, this says, 'Let's put the kids first and eliminate them from the equation and move on to the rest of the case issues.' "
To help parents comply with the law, the S.C. Supreme Court has published a "Proposed Parenting Plan," which asks parents not only to propose a custody schedule for the school year, summer and holidays, but to clearly state how certain issues will be handled. Among them are:
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The form must be submitted by each parent or guardian at a temporary hearing, typically when a judge decides short-term custody while the case makes its way through Family Court.
The form allows a judge to plainly see the extent to which a child's best interests have been considered by each parent, said Beaufort family-law attorney Diane DeWitt, who has served on the S.C. Bar Association's Family Law Council.
Before the law was amended, DeWitt said, a judge made such custody decisions based on affidavits from parents and proposals from lawyers. That sometimes left a judge with little information, especially if one or both parents couldn't afford an attorney.
"The long-term effect may be more balanced temporary orders issued, so that neither parent has the upper hand when it comes to finally obtaining custody," DeWitt said.
Previously, domestic violence didn't prohibit an abusive guardian from custody, Quendlen said.
Now, the law states a judge can consider "whether one parent has perpetrated domestic violence or child abuse or ... if any domestic violence has occurred between the parents or between a parent and another individual."
Judge Peter Fuge of the 14th Circuit Family Court, which includes Beaufort and Jasper counties, said the law should force parents to put aside some emotion when considering their children's well-being.
"I think it's a step forward to make people take a good hard look at themselves and what's best for their children," Fuge said. "Time will tell."
Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at twitter.com/IPBG_CrimeNOB.