Family Law

Creating a Parenting Plan that Works

By Amy Castillo, J.D., University of Minnesota School of Law
You can write a parenting plan that protects your children, facilitates communication with your ex, and helps settle your disputes.

A parenting plan is a binding legal document that explains how two parents will raise their children after they divorce or break up. Most states now use parenting plans, whether they’re court-ordered or drafted by the parents as part of a settlement. Good parenting plans share common features and plan for the future. If you’re working on a parenting plan, draft it as carefully as you can with a view not just to what’s happening today, but to what might happen tomorrow.

Methods for Communication

If two parents are able to cooperate after they break up, that’s great. It’s always best to work together in the common interest of your kids. Nonetheless, things can always change for the worse with the passage of time, and communication can break down.

For example, a parent might fail to meet certain financial obligations or might date or marry someone the other parent doesn’t like. A solid parenting plan will account for these potential pitfalls by dictating how the parents talk to each other about their kids.

If communication breaks down, parents need to find a method to talk to one another about the kids. If the parents are no longer capable of talking on the phone or even emailing each other, a good parenting plan might provide an alternative that keeps them in touch without forcing them to confront each other. For example, Our Family Wizard is an online tool that allows parents to talk to each other and log important information about the kids without requiring direct conversations. There are also other apps that can facilitate communication, like Split Schedule and 2 Houses.

When you work on your parenting plan, think about how you’d like your relationship with your ex to look. Are things already so tense that you need a software solution? Can you use email, texts, or a paper notebook that your child carries back and forth on visits? How often do you need to communicate? How will you make decisions together? What kinds of information do you need to talk about? And what if there’s an emergency? A good parenting plan will take all these variables into account.

Conflict Resolution

But what if there’s a dispute? Problems are inevitable, and parenting plans that are built for the long-haul will include a prescribed method to resolve differences between the parents. You should think about the nature of different problems you might have down the road.

Can some be solved by a family therapist, while others would need to be resolved by a legal professional such as a mediator, arbitrator, or collaborative law specialist? Try to think of the different issues you might face and select a professional who can best handle them.

If you can’t agree on a specific therapist, for example, create a process for how you’ll choose someone if you can’t agree. And make sure that you write down how much each parent is responsible for paying for these professional services.

Custody, Scheduling, and Living Arrangements

Your parenting plan should state the kind of custody you’re sharing and should set out a visitation schedule for when the children will spend time with each parent. This should encompass both ordinary life and special times, like holidays and school breaks. The plan should also designate how much time the children spend at your house and at your ex’s place.

A host of sub-issues are bundled into custody, scheduling, and residence. Think through as many of them as you can:

  • Will your child carry belongings from house to house, or keep some at both places?
  • Where will your child go to school? Do you want to set up a geographical restriction to make sure your child doesn’t have to leave the school district?
  • Can you and your ex use a babysitter or daycare, or should the child instead go to the other parent for care?
  • How will you and your ex make sure your child gets medical and dental care? What if you disagree about a health professional’s opinion? Can you get a second opinion? What if there’s a medical or dental emergency?
  • If you or your ex miss scheduled time with your child, can you make it up later or do you forfeit it?
  • Will you both agree to continue raising your kids in your cultural and religious background?
  • Will each of you allow the child to visit with the other parent’s extended family? If so, when, where, and for how long?
  • If one of you wants to travel with the child, are you entitled to do so? How much notice do you have to give the other parent? Who will hold onto the child’s passport?

Miscellaneous Problems

Every parent knows that now and again, strange little blips pop up in a child’s life. They’re always important and you have to deal with them, but you and your ex need to be able to communicate and show a united front if, for example, your underage child wants to get a tattoo, use social media, or travel to Europe with the school marching band. These issues can be even more mundane, like how much “screen time” your child gets in each parent’s home, whether the child has a mobile phone, and when the child is allowed to date.

New issues can originate with a parent’s life, too. If a parent has to take a job in a new area or becomes seriously involved with a new partner, the parents should talk about how to maintain the frequency and duration of each parent-child relationship or introduce the new romantic interest to their children.

Changing the Parenting Plan

What if you have to change the parenting plan itself? It’s not unlikely that you will. Families grow and change. If you had the foresight to fashion a flexible, adaptable plan, then you may not need to change it. But just in case, it’s wise to describe an process you can use to change the plan if needed. For example, each year on a set date you can and your ex can meet, with or without your lawyers, to review how well the plan is working and discuss whether you need to make some modifications.

If you and your child's other parent can't agree on a change, then you may have to file a motion to modify custody. If you have questions about changing custody, you should talk to an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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