Southern Utah legislator takes on child custody issues

Composite image. Background photo by Adrian825 / iStock / Getty Images Plus; St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In Utah, the divorce rate is almost half the marriage rate, and many of these divorce decrees include child custody arrangements.

State law already has a plan in place for these parents – a literal “parenting plan.” However, Southern Utah Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, has proposed “Parenting Plan Amendments,” designated HB 48 in the 2018 Legislature, to address issues specifically related to a child’s education in cases of divorce.

According to a report from the Utah Department of Health, the marriage rate in Utah in 2015 was 8.1 per 1,000 persons, and the divorce rate was 3.6 per 1,000. Using the 2015 state population, this equates to almost 10,800 divorces. Taking those numbers even further, Statistical Atlas reports that 20 percent of Utah households with children under 18 years old are run by single parents.

While Utah law states that decisions regarding health care and religious upbringing are an optional part of the parenting plan in cases of divorce, Snow’s bill aims to focus on the education of the child and make it a mandatory of the plan.

Snow told St. George News that the bill came from the family law section of the Utah State Bar and has been run at the request of the education community to not only assist them but also protect the best interests of the children.

“They (educators) believe this would help them in those situations when they are meeting with parents – often times separately – who are divorced and not able to meet with education counselors together,” Snow said. “And sometimes issues have arisen as to which parent actually controls the decisions related to the minor children’s education.”

The bill, which received unanimous approval and recommendation from the Judiciary Interim Committee over the summer, addresses three main points in relation to a child’s education:

  • The home residence for purposes of identifying the appropriate school or another specific plan that provides for where the child will attend school.
  • Which parent has authority to make education decisions for the child if the parents cannot agree.
  • Whether one or both parents have access to the child during school and authority to check the child out of school.

From there, the decisions depend on the custody agreement and are as follows:

  • A parent with sole custody makes decisions related to all three points.
  • In split custody, the parent who has the child the majority of the time makes decisions regarding the home residence for purposes of identifying the appropriate school and other education decisions, but both parents can have access to the child during school and check him/her out.
  • In split custody where the parents share custody equally, the court will determine decisions regarding appropriate school and other educations decisions. Both parents will have access to the child and be able to check him/her out.

This last point highlights an aspect of the legislation and legal process that Snow said he wanted to make sure was clear: The court has continuing jurisdiction over the custody and best interests of the minor children until they reach the age of maturity.

“So with respect to the minor children, if the parties can’t make agreements, there is always the court that can decide those issues,” Snow said. “The major thrust of the original parenting plan was to have the parents work through those issues and submit that to the court, and now to include specifically some information with respect to education.”

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