Divorce can be very contentious, and the South Dakota Legislature is no exception.
After passionate testimony from both sides, a divided Senate committee narrowly approved a “shared parenting” bill that makes joint physical custody of children the standard in South Dakota.
Advocates say the current law, which permits divorcing parents to share physical custody of their children but only when a judge determines it to be “in the best interests of the child,” lead to willing parents being kept out of the lives of their children.
“When you place a child in the primary physical custody of one parent, you’re limiting the other parent’s ability to play a meaningful role in that child’s life,” said Wade Fischer, a Pierre attorney.
If Senate Bill 125 passes, equal-time custody between parents would be the standard. Rather than having to prove that shared parenting should be ordered, it would be up to dissenting parents to prove that it shouldn’t be ordered.
A long line of advocates testified Monday in personal and emotional terms about their own experience with divorce and success with shared parenting.
One woman told the Senate State Affairs Committee that she had originally pushed to keep her children in her divorce, before realizing she was being selfish and agreeing to share custody with her ex-husband.
Another warned lawmakers that South Dakota’s “children are losing their fathers.”
Casey Wilson, of Flandreau, said two weekends per month is not “enough time to be a good parent.”
Opposed to the bill were a number of family practice attorneys and an advocacy group, who worried SB 125 would create more problems than it solves.
Linda Lea Viken, of Rapid City, said “shared parenting can be very good for children” — but only if the parents agree.
This bill, Viken argued, would lead to shared parenting being imposed in cases where that wasn’t the best outcome for the children.
Other opponents objected to applying some standard other than the current “best interests of the child” in determining custody.
“Senate Bill 125 puts children in the middle of warring parents,” said Debra Watson, of Rapid City.
Viken and Watson said the law would lead to more divorces fought in court instead of settlements because it would force spouses who objected to shared parenting to challenge that before a judge.
Fischer, in response, said the bill was reasonable because it allowed the presumption of shared parenting to be challenged and overturned by parents who objected.
Similar shared parenting bills have been brought forward in past years, never becoming law. Supporters weren’t confident on Monday that the bill would make it out of committee. But a slim majority of lawmakers voted yes, approving SB 125 by a 5-4 vote.
Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes and a member of the committee, said the bill seemed like a necessary update of South Dakota’s long-standing divorce law.
“I think we’re living in the 1970s with our custody laws,” Lederman said.
The measure now heads to the full Senate for consideration.