A parenting plan can be a useful tool to help parents think about and allocate their responsibilities to their children after a relationship breaks down.The parents of minor children have responsibilities that survive the breakdown of a marriage or domestic relationship.
The relationship that parents have with each other does not affect their obligation to provide support and care for their children. When parents are living together in an intact family, it is natural for them to make mutual decisions about how to raise their children. When parents separate, however, confusion often arises about how those decisions should be made.
Parents might agree that they will have joint custody of their children, which involves shared responsibility for raising a child, including making decisions about a child’s education, healthcare, religion, and other important matters. Unfortunately, sharing responsibility for raising a child does not necessarily mean that parents will understand how to work together.
Making a parenting plan is a good way for parents to think about those issues. A parenting plan is a written agreement that addresses how children of separated parents will be cared for and supported. Making the plan soon after, or in anticipation of, a separation helps parents avoid misunderstandings (and costly court proceedings) as their children grow older.
You can make your parenting plan comprehensive, or you can use it to address only a few crucial issues. If you are having trouble making agreements about your children, you can use a parenting plan to document the things you can agree upon. You might want to enlist the assistance of a mediator or counselor to help you find more areas of agreement.
The key to any parenting plan is to make agreements that you believe will benefit your children, not just the parents. When disputes about children are resolved in court, the court must base its decision on the best interests of the children. You should be guided by that same principle when you make a parenting plan.
It is important for the written document to provide for the children’s protection from abuse or neglect or from significant risk of harm. It is also important that the children are encouraged to continue seeing or communicating with the other parent because maintaining a meaningful relationship with both parents is key to the children’s sense of security and well-being. The parenting plan’s foremost consideration should be the best interest of the children.
A good parenting plan will usually include a schedule that specifies the time the children will spend with each parent. If you decide that the children will primarily live with one parent (during the school year, for example), you should decide when the other parent will spend time with the children. Will that time include overnight visits? Where will be children spend weekends, holidays, and school vacations? How will you divide time with the children on special occasions, including the children’s birthdays?
Your plan might also address:
Parenting plans are often used to make agreements about how the children will be raised.
Child support is determined administratively according to a formula. Parents should take child support obligations into account when considering whether a parent who pays child support should provide extra financial support to cover some of the costs mentioned above.
Parents probably will not be able to anticipate every disagreement that might arise about raising their children. A good parenting plan might therefore include an agreement about how future controversies will be resolved. It might allocate decision-making about some topics to one parent while allowing the other parent to make final decisions about other topics. Parents might also agree to use mediation services to help them resolve future parenting disputes.
As children grow older, their needs change. It is not always possible to anticipate a child’s future needs when making a parenting plan. In addition, the circumstances of parents change as time goes on. Parents may change careers or residences, remarry, or experience a health crisis that changes their ability to adhere to a parenting plan.
Parents can agree to modify their parenting plans at any time. It is wise to have a procedure in the parenting plan that tells parents how they should communicate with each other (for example, by telephone or email) when they want to raise the possibility of changing a parenting plan.
Parenting plans are a useful tool for most parents, but they are not always practical. If one parent is abusive, the other parent’s focus must be on protecting the children from harm. There are situations in which it makes sense to go directly to court to obtain appropriate parenting orders that will shelter the children from abuse. It is generally wise to obtain legal advice about responsibilities and procedures if those concerns are present.
A court may decide to enforce the agreements that you reach in a parenting plan if one parent breaches those agreements. However, the court will only consider a parenting plan if
• the plan is in writing,
• the plan is dated and signed by both parents, and
• both parents entered into the plan voluntarily, without being threatened, coerced, or intimidated.
Even if all of those conditions are met, the court will only enforce the agreement if it believes that doing so will be in the best interests of the children.