Sharing parenting time and decision-making responsibility for children can be incredibly challenging when a couple divorces. That’s why it’s so important to sit down with your lawyer or mediator and create a detailed parenting plan because it puts down on paper exactly what’s expected of each parent. It looks at the children’s current and future needs and provides ways to minimize potential conflict between parents.
The main points of a parenting plan involve the children’s health care, education, religion, and extracurricular activities. It can also cover daily routines, methods of discipline, childcare, potential changes to the schedule, and even travelling with the children outside the country.
The plan lays out the actual parenting schedule: where the children will reside, what their day-to-day schedule will be, and where they will be on holidays. A plan can be either fixed or flexible, depending on what will work best for the family. The advantage of a fixed schedule is that it minimizes conflict between the parents, but for those who have a good working relationship, a flexible schedule may be the better choice for the entire family.
A schedule includes a plan for long weekends and holidays, including the two weeks off at Christmas, the week of March Break, and summer vacation. In some calendar years, one parent can end up with most of the long weekends, so some parents like to specify which parent will get the children on each long weekend. There can be a different schedule for the summer months. From September to June the children are in school and have a stricter routine but in July and August, it may make sense to change the parenting schedule.
Reaching an impasse
I always tell clients that they are free to deviate from the parenting plan but if they reach an impasse and can’t agree on something, at least they have something to fall back on that’s as close to black and white as possible. If an issue crops up where one parent is looking to take the children for a long weekend, for example, and the other parent doesn’t agree, they can fall back on what’s written in the plan.
The overriding principle of a parenting plan is that it should be tailored to the best interests of the children. One standard rotation plan for parents with 50-50 arrangements is to have the children with one parent two days on, two days off, five days on, then five days off. Another that works better for some is one week on, one week off. But, for example, if a parent works the night shift, it doesn’t make sense for the children to be there overnight, so in that case, the parent must find other pockets of time to care for them.
The plan should also lay out how the parents will communicate with each other about various issues. Is it best to talk face-to-face, by video chat or by phone, use email, texts, or use a notebook that goes back and forth with the children? Is there a specific time to communicate with each other? How will they contact each other in case of an emergency?
Other issues to think about include dealing with pick-ups and drop-offs, how the children will be able to spend time with their friends, and how their clothing and other belongings will be arranged for and purchased. How will decisions about school be handled? Will both parents attend parent-teacher meetings? Who is the school’s emergency contact person?
With such a wide variety of things to deal with, those who put a parenting plan in place on their own sometimes make the mistake of not making it detailed enough.
If issues aren’t clearly thought out in advance with the help of a lawyer or mediator, they can cause conflict later. Parents have the chance to tailor it to work for the entire family, which is not something you’re likely to get if you ask a judge to decide the issues for you. The court is not designed to provide the level of detail required in a comprehensive parenting plan.
Some clients insist that they’re getting along just fine with the other parent, who lets them see the children whenever they want. But I always stress that they should write out a plan anyway. They can put it in a drawer and not look at it if their relationship continues to be good, but if there’s a disagreement they can always revert to the plan.
It may not be possible to anticipate all the potential issues that may crop up, but a solid parenting plan can go a long way to minimize future problems and ensure that your children’s best interests are taken into account.
If you would like to schedule a consultation to discuss how a parenting plan can help your family move forward following separation or divorce, I would be happy to help you.