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Potential issues with Florida's child time-sharing laws?

This year, changes have yet again been proposed for some of Florida's family laws. Some of these measures, like one suggesting sweeping reforms for the state's alimony laws, have already been defeated in the legislature. Others, good-intentioned as they may be, are unlikely to pass.

One thing all these proposals have in common, though, for as disparate for the reasons behind them and the laws they seek to change are, is that they do at least get the conversation going again around how the statutes could be better serving the needs of our state. A recent piece in the Jacksonville Financial Times & Daily Record has shined a spotlight on some of the issues with existing statutes governing modifications to time-sharing agreements and parenting plans.

Current law

State law, namely Florida Statutes 61.13(2)(c), states that matters concerning parenting and time-sharing shall be governed by the "best interests of the child" standard, and that modification of existing time-sharing and parenting schedules will only be done upon a change of circumstances that is:

  • Substantial
  • Material
  • Unanticipated

Unfortunately, no exact definition for those terms was given by the legislature, leaving the matter up to the courts for interpretation.

When are changes in circumstances "substantial" enough to warrant modification?

The answer to that question is a hard one, and it is something that family courts across the state have answered in countless different ways over the years. Though there have been thousands of cases on this issue decided since the law was passed - and there have been trends in some jurisdictions or amongst particular judges - there isn't a consistent degree of certainty across the state to help determine what these terms really mean.

Part of this is caused by the situation-dependent nature of family law itself; judges must make decisions as they apply to the unique set of circumstances facing a particular family at a particular moment in time. Being such a fact-specific area of the law, it can be hard to seek consistency when countless variations exist from family to family. Another part of it, though, is that judges themselves aren't quite sure what exactly facts and circumstances of each family's story should be "substantial" or "material," nor is it always easy to determine when a change in circumstances is "unanticipated" by the parties involved.

Ways to move forward when modifications are needed

You have the option to attempt to work out modifications with your child's other parent independent of the court system. Working together is usually quicker, less expensive and less contentious than litigating a solution. If you can set aside any personal feelings of anger or resentment regarding the end of your relationship and are truly committed to co-parenting your children, then collaboration is possible and is likely your best bet in most circumstances.

Once you've reached a resolution, you can take your modifications to the court to have them made part of your official parenting plan. Even if working with an impartial mediator or collaborative professional is necessary, it may still yield a more satisfactory outcome than having a judge decide. 

However, there are situations where working together to find a resolution simply isn't possible. It may be that domestic violence was an issue in your relationship, or that you and your former partner are simply too emotional to agree upon the necessary modifications. In that case, family court could be your next stop. It will then be up to the judge to determine if the party seeking the modification has made the requisite showing to have it granted.

This is when you need to make the strongest case possible to prove to the court that making a change is both warranted under the criteria set forth in the statute and in the best interests of your children. Having an experienced family law attorney, someone familiar with the relevant laws and local courts, at your side throughout the process will give you a statistically better chance of success and will help alleviate some of the fear and anxiety that seeking a change in time-sharing can cause.

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Frank Family Law Practice
815 Orienta Avenue
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