John and Carol have been married for twelve years and have two young school-aged children - Summer and Stephen. But, for a variety of reasons, John and Carol have decided to divorce. Now, as they begin the process of separating for good, the issue of how to handle custody of the children has become a real sticking point.
"While we are both OK with shared custody, trying to define all the details has become a big issue," John told his therapist.
"I think the kids will be best off if they trade off one week with me and one with Carol, but she thinks for their stability, they should primarily live at her home, where they have grown up, and then just stay with me on weekends, half of the holidays and half of the summer. I hate that concept."
"John just doesn't know what children need; he has never been with them 24/7 because his career just was too important and time-consuming. Candidly, I am worried about him having them so much; I suspect they will just be handed off to a babysitter most of the time," Carol suggested.
Who is wrong and who is right? As is in the case with many couples, the truth is in between. The best answer for all concerned - both parents and the children - is to find an arrangement for their care that best meets their needs. And that answer can only be found when everyone gets their issues on the table, addresses them objectively, and comes up with a plan.
In the world of child custody, that plan is known as a parenting plan. A parenting plan is negotiated between the parents and their legal counsel and then is approved by the court in defining the custody arrangements.
Parenting plans help define the new world in which the children will live and operate and carefully define the roles of each parent.
Once approved by the family court judge, the parenting plan is enforceable on both parents and both will need to keep their obligations under the plan.
It is important to remember that when you were married, you had a parenting plan - it just wasn't reduced to writing. You and your partner figured out together how to raise the children. In John and Carol's case, John worked full-time and was the primary provider. While Carol worked part-time as a teacher's aide while the kids were in school, she was the primary caregiver and had the major responsibility for the kids' day-to-day lives. John enjoyed time with the family and on weekends and vacations. He helped in the evenings with homework and spent several hours a week with household chores and care for the yard. When the kids needed things or if a doctor visit was required, John and Carol both discussed it and made a decision together.
What is a Parenting Plan?
A parenting plan looks a lot like what was just described, only it considers the challenges of having the children living in two homes with unmarried parents. consists of the following essential elements:
Physical custody. This section of the plan details the time each parent will have custody of the children.
Here is where you would record the days when the children will live with one parent and then with the other. It will cover things like holidays, summer visits, the hours the children will be with each, what physical arrangements will be made (like their own or shared rooms), and so forth.
Transportation and custody exchanges. The parenting plan also specifies who is responsible for transportation when the children's custody changes hands, where the exchanges will happen and what the ground rules will be.
Legal custody. The plan will also define which parent has the responsibility for making decisions about the children. If the parents have joint legal custody, it usually requires both parents to communicate and agree about major decisions. This section helps define that relationship, how critical decisions are made when both parents are not available, and what happens when the parents cannot agree.
Child support. Parenting plans also typically include the ground rules for calculating child support payments and what items are included in regular support payments and which are not. This is a really important component because it defines for the long term how the parents will assess, collect and spend child support dollars.
Healthcare. The plan should also include information about healthcare for the children, both physical and mental in nature. Issues about who provides and pays for health insurance, whether health care costs are included in child support or not, and who makes decisions about securing health care should all be addressed in a parenting plan.
Schools and school records. The parenting plan should also address the details about children's education. Which schools will they attend? How should the parents decide if there is a change in schools? What records will be accessible to which parents? Who will have the ability to address other issues related to the children's education and under which circumstances? Which parent can pick up the children at school and under what circumstances? Getting answers to these issues brings some significant clarity that will be helpful when educators are involved.
Annual vacations and school breaks. The parenting plan needs to include details about how the children will be involved with each parent's vacation time and how the parents will be involved with kids on breaks from school. This can be a divisive issue between parents if it is not addressed in advance and both parents understand the ground rules.
Social activities and school functions. Will both parents come separately to every school play and sports event, or will these be split? Which parent makes the call when a child wants to go on a first date? Who gets involved in proms, dances, graduation parties and the like. Defining these issues become an important part of any parenting plan.
Communications and decision making. Most parenting plans define a regular schedule for both parents to communicate with each other about the children's lives and decision making.
In the case of joint legal custody, this becomes even more important. But even if one parent has legal custody and the other is less involved, there will certainly be times when the non-custodial parent will care about something. Defining this relationship carefully is one of the primary functions of a parenting plan.
Contact with relatives and others. In every family, there are considerations needed for others than just the children and parents. If this is not carefully considered, grandparents, aunts, uncles or future spouses of the parents can disrupt even the best relationships. Consider in the parenting plan how to handle the desires of other family members relative to the children, and how to address the children's desires to interact with them.
Relocation. At times, even though it is not really good for the children, one or the other parent may find themselves in a situation where they need to relocate away from the other parent. The parenting plan should contemplate this possibility and work through issues like visitation, child support, legal custody decisions and costs of travel.
Dispute resolution processes. A good parenting plan, as comprehensive as it may be, simply cannot anticipate every contingency. And even the most cooperative parents will not always agree. Defining how disputes will be resolved is essential in any parenting plan. Do you both agree to mediate any disputes? Who will mediate? How can the parents change the parenting plan?
As John and Carol learned, a good, comprehensive parenting plan is vital to the continuing relationship between children and their unmarried parents. Careful consideration of the parenting plan up front will take away much of the stress later as parents try to raise their children in separate households.