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Bill would rewrite state divorce, custody law

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BISMARCK -- A lawyers' task force is proposing a wholesale rewrite of North Dakota's divorce and child custody laws in hopes that it can ease disputes about custody and visitation that sometimes plague families for years.

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The proposal would require parenting plans from divorcing parents that the courts would approve and adopt as part of divorce decrees. It also changes old terminology in an effort to get away from charged language like "custodial parent" and "non-custodial parent."

The term "visitation schedule" would become "parenting schedule" and the parent who has "physical custody" under current law would have "primary residential responsibility."

After a divorce, parenting disputes that don't warrant going back to court or which need to be settled quickly would be mediated by a parenting coordinator program.

A typical dispute for parenting coordinators would be a disagreement about which parent gets a child for a certain holiday.

The parenting coordinators would be like "mediators with teeth" whose decisions would enforceable, said Bismarck lawyer Sherry Mills Moore, who is chairwoman of the State Bar Association task force that wrote the bill.

The committee did not act on the bill yet; the committee must hold a second hearing before taking any action to forward the bill to the 2009 session.

Chairwoman Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, said the committee's next meeting is tentatively set for Sept. 17.

Meyer said she believes the bill draft "was really good, a start in the right direction to diffuse the issues" that plague divorced parents and which are brought to the Legislature time and again.

She is hopeful that the bill could help non-custodial parents who often "feel like they don't have any say or voice or recourse with the courts. Maybe we can prevent some of this."

Mills Moore said that in writing the proposed bill, the task force met with sponsors of the failed 2006 shared parenting initiated measure and with sponsors of a similar initiated measure which is now in the signature-gathering phase.

Deborah Vaagen of West Fargo, chairwoman of the current initiated measure said in a phone interview late Tuesday that she recalls meeting with the bar association task force in January but is not familiar with what the bill draft says and couldn't comment without seeing it.

But, she said, it could be "a breath of fresh air" because "I can't seem to get people to collect signatures" for the measure.

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.

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