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Child custody plan to ease bitter divorce battle

The reform of parental custody would allow Switzerland to catch up with other European countries


A government proposal to introduce joint parental responsibility for divorced couples has been widely welcomed.

However, the controversial issue of child support payments has been excluded and will be dealt with next year. It is now up to parliament to discuss the necessary legal amendments as part of an overhaul of the civil code.

“A first important step has been taken,” said Kathie Wiederkehr of the Foundation for the Protection of Children.

She is optimistic that parliament will accept the bill – bringing Switzerland in line with legislation in other European countries – as most political parties and pressure groups appear willing to end a long-running controversy.

She says it is right to try to solve the issue of joint custody first and tackle the payment of alimonies at a later stage.

But further measures, including mandatory courses, are needed which go beyond legal amendments.

“For the benefit of the child, parents have to be empowered and learn how to cope with joint custody. At the moment, the funding for such courses is insufficient,” Wiederkehr said.


Anna Hausheer of the Association of Single Parents welcomed the government’s decision, but called for a legal minimum child support to prevent cases of poverty.

“The minimum amount should be equivalent to a simple pension for an orphaned child of a single parent family,” she said.

She added that such a payment could be most efficient and implemented without a complicated procedure.

Hausheer pointed out that one in four single-parent families in Switzerland lived in relative poverty with an undeniable impact for a child and its future opportunities.

Sea change

The umbrella organisation of men’s and fathers’ groups describes the government’s proposal as pragmatic.

“It is a real step ahead. The joint responsibility could become the rule and exclusive custody by just one parent becomes the exception which has to be well justified,” said the organisation’s president Markus Theunert.

He said the current situation was responsible for numerous tragedies.

“Thousands of children of divorced couples alienated themselves from their fathers.”

He added that the legal reform reflected social changes and paved the way for amicable dialogue and parental cooperation.

“I will be pleased if parliament approves the bill. But we have to continue our campaign,” he added.

However, the bill is not a silver bullet. “Parents need professional help to cope with difficult and emotionally stressful phases of a divorce or separation,” Theunert said.

It was important that courts no longer took old family models as a yardstick, where the father was the only breadwinner.

Child’s well-being

Presenting the government proposals to the media earlier this week, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the well-being of the child was at the centre.

The amendment is aimed at doing away with a legal inequality since as a rule the mother gets sole custody under current law.

“However, the new law will not be able to answer the question as to which parent will get custody,” Sommaruga said.

She pledged to launch a legal reform of child support in the first half of next year to address financial problems of unmarried mothers.

Commentators say the issue of alimonies is likely to be a lot harder to solve.

“The tough piece is still to come. It will need even more tact for those debates. But Sommaruga is capable of it,” the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper commented.

“The decision paves the way for a less emotional debate on the issue. That’s no mean feat. Divorce battles are merciless enough,” a joint editorial in Friday’s Tages-Anzeiger and Bund said.


The bill brings Switzerland in line with other European countries, according to Oliver Hunziker of the Association of Responsible Fathers and Mothers.

Efforts to introduce joint custody of children were launched in the mid-1990s ahead of a reform of divorce laws.

As part of the reform 11 years ago, joint custody could be granted but women effectively had a veto.

The Federal Statistics Office last year recorded just over 22,000 divorce cases of couples with nearly 15,400 underage children.

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