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First steps taken on path toward hopeful family law reconciliation

The House took its first steps Thursday toward what’s being touted as Minnesota’s most significant potential reform of family law in decades.

The House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee approved the first two bills in a suite of legislation that supporters say will bring state laws concerning families into the 21st century.

The bills are sponsored by four House members who were part of a Child Custody Dialogue Group. The group, which also drew on people with expertise and interest from other organizations, met over the course of two years to find consensus on family law issues that had been the source of sometimes contentious disputes for more than 10 years.

The four — Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul), Rep. Carolyn Laine (DFL-Columbia Heights), Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover) and Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) — aim to bring the bills together in a single omnibus bill later in the session.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto of family-law legislation in 2012 started the contenders on a path to reconciliation, coming to agreement where they could in three areas: making revisions to the best-interest-of-the-child factors, making changes to child-support statutes, and improving and clarifying family law statutes.

Sponsored by Mahoney, HF464 would make what is now an appendix to a court order regarding custody or parenting a part of the court order itself. The problem now, he said, is that police, schools and religious organizations often don’t recognize that the appendix stapled to the back of the order is part of the order.

His bill, which next goes to the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, would also set the rate of interest a family court may impose with some judgments as the same rate set each calendar year by the state court administrator — rather than the 10 percent rate of interest many family courts impose today.

Laine’s bill, HF451, would clarify the recognition of parentage form, remove the presumption that the parent with primary physical custody is an “obligor” who pays the other parent; would let judges consider parents’ income disparity in determining a level of support payment; would set potential income at 30 hours per week at 100 percent of minimum wage; and require state government to notify consumer credit agencies when a parent is behind — or is no longer behind — on child support payments.

The bill was referred to the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee.

The collaborators made a commitment to each other to accept only technical amendments to the bills, Mahoney said. More significant amendments would have to go to the Child Custody Dialogue Group for consideration, Scott said.

That approach to amendments was put to the test right away. On HF464, the revisor’s office proposed an amendment that Mahoney said was purely technical, clarifying language so the bill is easier to read. The amendment was approved on a voice vote.

On HF451, Rep. Dennis Smith (R-Maple Grove) suggested the bill be changed to say how soon after learning a parent has fulfilled a debt obligation the Department of Human Services should contact consumer credit agencies. Scott, as committee chair, asked for an oral amendment but Hilstrom said it would be better to take time to craft an amendment for the next committee to consider. Scott agreed.

Neither bill has a companion in the Senate. Other bills in the package of legislation arising from the Child Custody Dialogue Group are:

  • HF437, sponsored by Scott;
  • HF446, sponsored by Mahoney;
  • HF452, sponsored by Laine; and
  • HF465, sponsored by Scott.  

 


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