Dayton vetoes bill that would have given divorced parents more presumed custody

Joint custody bill supporter
John Hurd holds a sign saying "Vikings 1, Kids 0" as he joined other supporters of the presumed joint custody bill outside Gov. Mark Dayton's office in the State Capitol building Thursday May 23, 2012, urging him to sign the measure, which would increase the minimum parenting time in custody cases from 25 percent to 35 percent for each parent. Dayton declined to sign the bill into law, in effect issuing a "pocket veto" of the measure.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Gov. Mark Dayton today vetoed a bill to change parenting time in child custody cases by increasing the minimum amount of time each parent would spend with the child from 25 percent to 35 percent.

Neil Heinze of Lake Crystal is a father of four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and 6. Heinze was one of five fathers who demonstrated outside the governor's office this afternoon in support of the bill.

Heinze said that over the past two years he has worked from having no time with his kids to every other weekend, and now to having them a quarter of the time.

"I'm currently at exactly 25 percent parenting time and I'm just simply here because I just want a little bit more time with my kids, in part to make up for some of that lost time that was wrongly taken away from me," Heinze said.

The men are part of a group called the Center for Parental Responsibility, founded by Molly Olson 13 years ago because she was tired of seeing people she thought were good parents sidelined from their children's lives.

Olson said if the law doesn't have a presumption of equal time for parents, it sets the stage for conflict and continues the disparity.

"When you have this presumption that's a disparity between the two parents, that's what people are using as the baseline for their agreements and that causes conflict," Olson said. "It causes conflict when one parent believes they're going to be a winner and the other parent believes they're going to be a loser. No parent wants to be the loser parent."

Opponents of the bill said Minnesota courts already have flexibility, and most parents agree on the shared parenting that makes the most sense for their families.

"What you're talking about are those cases in which people don't otherwise agree," said Mike Dittberner, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. His organization and the Family Law Section of the Minnesota Bar opposed the bill.

"Once you start monkeying around with presumptions and start changing the law and impacting upon those cases in which agreement is not reached, or is only with great difficulty reached, you're going to run the risk of increasing litigation."

Battered women's advocates also opposed the bill.

In his veto letter, the governor described himself as "torn between persuasive arguments" from both sides. Dayton was swayed, he said, by the strong opposition to the bill from organizations "who work every day with the most challenging divorces and their effects on the well-being, and even the safety, of parents and children."

Dayton said there was enough uncertainty over the ramifications of the bill to give him pause.

Custody bills are perennial at the capitol. In 2009, the Minnesota Supreme Court commissioned a task force to study joint custody. William Mitchell College of Law Dean Nancy Ver Steegh was the reporter. She says the governor did the right thing to not sign the bill.

"I do think that we want to promote, as a state, healthy ongoing relationships with both parents after divorce," Ver Steegh said. "That's really important to do, and for many families that's an achievable goal.

But for other parents, Ver Steegh said, dividing custody is more difficult.

"It's hard to imagine that 35-percent/65-percent allocation is going to be right amount for every family and that individual approach is going to be much better as opposed to a one-size-fits-all idea," she said.

Dayton, a divorced father himself, closed his letter pledging more engagement from his office on the issue in the 2013 session to hopefully produce legislation he can sign next year.