The West Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee last week voted to advance Senate Bill 463. The bill, if passed, would grant equal custody rights to divorced parents who do not already have a custody agreement in place.
What the Bill Means for Divorce Proceedings
The bill compels family court judges to begin divorce proceedings by granting each party 50/50 custody, except in those circumstances in which there is clear evidence that one party or the other has a history of abusing their child or threatening their child’s safety.
The bill, if passed, will come into law as The Parenting Fairness Act, and has twice been debated in the legislature in the last three years. In 2020, House Bill 4648 was adopted by both legislative chambers, but the clock ran out in the legislature’s final week of that session, and the bill was not passed into law.
What Happened During the Hearings
Organizations such as West Viriginians for Shared Parenting argue that existing laws are automatically punitive and do not take into consideration the need for children to have access to both parents. The organization’s founder, Jeff Pinkerton, gave a testimony at the hearings and said, in an interview with The Herald Dispatch, that custody standards compelled the judge ruling over his case to give his wife the bulk of custody rights because he had been working full-time, while his wife remained home looking after their child. He believes that ruling, correct from a legal point of view, was pervase, punishing him for working. In order to increase his custody rights, Pinkerton spent over $20,000 in legal fees, but because he lacked a competent child custody lawyer, he struggled to do so.
Hearings for the bill considered adverse effects that might arise from the bill. Some lawyers worried that automatic 50-50 custody rights might put children in the hands of abusive parents and that some parents may make false claims to prevent their children spending more time with their former partners.
According to general counsel Tom Smith, responding to a question from Senate Judiciary ve chairman Ryan Weld, the bill would potentially open up existing custody agreements.
Equal Custody Issues
Deanna Rock, who serves as Mineral County Family Court Judge, said she was worried that the bill might cause people experiencing domestic violence, to stay in those relationships rather than risk their child being alone half the time with an abusive parent.
According to the text of the law, clear evidence of domestic violence, or a history as a sex offender would be grounds for a judge to refrain from award equal custody. However, Rock worried that this would create incentives for people getting divorced to falsely file claims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in order to win custody.
The bill has advanced to the Senate for further deliberations.