Welfare Authorities in Israel Push Law Lowering Automatic Age Mothers Receive Custody in Divorces

Under current law, when parents divorce, the mother gets custody of children under age 6 absent extenuating circumstances

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court
Moti Milrod

Social welfare officials want to make changes to proposed legislation that would lower the age at which children would automatically be placed in the custody of their mothers in divorce cases. The bill would automatically place children in their mother’s custody until age 2 and the authorities are seeking to raise the age to 3.

In addition, Haaretz has obtained a Justice Ministry document that proposes other significant additions to the bill, including imposing fines on parents who violate custody arrangements, limiting custody hearings to a six-month period and setting guidelines for judges in their custody rulings.

Under current law, when parents divorce, the mother gets custody of children under 6, unless there are reasons to decide otherwise. The proposal to limit automatic maternal custody to age 2 is a compromise between MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), who sought to have the law provide for maternal custody up to age 4, and MK Yoav Kish (Likud), who wanted automatic custody to be completely dropped, to be replaced by joint custody by the parents regardless of the child’s age.

Officials at the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry have said that 2 is too young for children to deal with shared custody arrangements, suggesting that they can only understand and absorb the changes in their lives from age 3. Political and legal sources have said that it will be very difficult to pass a compromise bill that social welfare authorities oppose.

In the suggested changes that the Justice Ministry is proposing, with the support of welfare officials, the ministry is seeking to expand the legislation with provisions aimed at preventing protracted court battles over custody. For the first time, under the proposal, sanctions would be imposed, including financial compensation to the other parent or the child, in cases of parents who violate custody agreements. Parents who continually violate custody arrangements could also be ordered to undergo counseling at their own expense.

Justice officials also want judges to have guidelines for establishing custody arrangements for children beyond the age of automatic custody to avoid lengthy adversarial proceedings in which each judge rules differently. They propose that judges consider nine aspects of the case, including the child’s physical and emotional state, the divorcing couple’s parenting skills, the degree of cooperation between the parents, the care that each parent accorded to the child before the separation and maintenance of stability in the child’s life.

The Justice Ministry’s proposal to limit the duration of custody hearings to six months from the day a custody request is filed would constitute a major change. The courts are currently so overwhelmed that it can take months just to begin custody proceedings. Changing this, however, would require a significant boost in manpower in both the courts and the social welfare offices, and it isn’t clear where the required funding for this would come from.