Last month, we talked about what kind of information you need to create a functional parenting plan. Once you and your coparent have considered all the pertinent facts, it is time to build your plan. Many parents find this to be a stressful process. Knowing what to include in your plan can help. A skilled parenting mediator can also be a valuable resource.
Ideally, both parents will cooperate in creating a plan that works well for every member of the restructured family. Some parents can do this all on their own. Many, however, need a mediator to help them work out the kinks. Some parents also seek input from a child development specialist. If you are still unable to reach an agreement after parenting mediation and professional help, the court will create a plan for you. Be forewarned though, battling over custody in court is invariably an expensive and stressful endeavor.
What to Include in your Parenting Agreement
At a minimum, your parenting plan must include agreements regarding legal and physical custody. It should also include any other agreements that will help you co-parent well together. While there are no strict rules about how to divide legal and physical custody, whatever you decide must be in the best interests of your children.
Legal custody refers to parental responsibility for major decisions regarding a child’s health, education, and welfare. Most parents choose joint legal custody because it gives them equal rights and responsibilities. Courts making legal custody decisions also generally award joint legal custody unless there is a clear reason not to (such as one parent being absent or unfit).
Less commonly, parents decide that it will be more convenient if one of them has the final say on all major decisions. It is also possible to divide major decision-making responsibility by letting one parent be the tiebreaker for certain types of decisions and the other be the tiebreaker for other types of decisions. For example, one parent might oversee educational matters, while the other oversees religious upbringing. Other decisions, such as health and medical decisions, could go to either parent or remain the purview of both parents.
Physical custody refers to the child’s living arrangements. Often, children live primarily with one parent while also spending a substantial amount of time with the other parent. Sometimes parents share physical custody and split parenting time approximately equally. In rare situations, a child might be with one parent all or most of the time.
In addition to a day-to-day schedule, your plan should detail time-sharing for holidays, special occasions, and vacations. Many parents split holidays evenly on a schedule that alternates yearly. Parents who live close to each other sometimes have children spend part of a major holiday at one house and part of it at another. The decision is yours based on what works best for your family.
Plans for vacation time should describe how often, when, and for how long parents can travel with children. It is also a good idea to indicate any restrictions on destinations and how much notice one parent must give the other about travel plans.
Your plan should also include agreements about when and where parents will exchange children. Sometimes one parent drops the kids off at school and the other picks them up. Sometimes everyone meets at a location between homes. If parents do not get along, exchanges can include a neutral third party.
Shared Physical Custody
Parents who decide to share physical custody equally have many choices for how to split up time. Here are a few examples:
- 3-4-4-3 (3 nights with one parent and 4 nights with the other, followed by 4 nights with the first parent and 3 nights with the second).
- 2-2-5-5 (2 nights with each parent followed by 5 nights with each parent).
- alternate weeks with each parent.
There are many other possibilities, especially if you don’t need the time split to be exactly equal. A parenting mediator can give you examples and help you brainstorm possibilities. One thing to keep in mind is that younger children generally do better when time away from either parent is shorter. For that reason, alternating full weeks may be better left until children are at least school age.
Primary Residential Custody
If your children will be living primarily with one parent, it is generally preferable for them to see the other parent frequently. The considerations stated above relating to age still apply. So, for example, if your child will be alternating weekends with the non-residential parent, it is usually a good idea to schedule a midweek activity or overnight every week as well. For young children, planning two mid-week activities with the non-residential parent on the weeks they are not spending weekend time with that parent can help ameliorate a long span of time apart.
Other Information to Include in a Parenting Plan
In addition to the details about legal and physical custody, you may want to include agreements regarding the following in your parenting plan:
- How to handle emergencies or unexpected schedule changes.
- Who besides the parents can pick children up from school or other activities if a parent is unavailable.
- Any special arrangements about contact with extended family and friends.
- Preferred methods of communication between parents.
- Parent/child communication when children are with the other parent.
- Parents’ communication with children’s schools.
- Parental attendance at a child’s school functions or other activities.
- Dispute resolution arrangements, such as an agreement to go to mediation before filing any complaints in court.
- Any mutual house rules.
- A description of how parents will divide major expenses.
- Any restrictions on relocation with children.
Children grow and change, so it is important to keep an open mind about adjusting your plan over time. While it is possible to get a court to order modifications if circumstances change substantially, it is always best if parents can agree on any changes. Including an agreement to go to mediation before going to court can go a long way toward making this happen.
If you and your coparent are ready to work on your parenting plan, or if you have a parenting plan that needs modifying and need a mediator to help you work things out, contact one of our experienced child custody mediators today.