Family Law

What Is a Parenting Plan?

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Divorcing parents should learn all about parenting plans and how to prepare them.

Parenting Plan Basics

A parenting plan is an agreement between you and your child’s other parent about how to care for your child’s needs after you separate. Parenting plans address things like each parent’s rights and responsibilities, custody, visitation arrangements, child support, medical care and any other factor affecting your child’s best interests. Before submitting your agreement to the judge, you need to ensure that your parenting plan is complete and serves your child’s best interests.

What Should I Include in My Parenting Plan?

A good parenting plan is very specific. In other words, there should be no room for doubt or disagreement in your parenting plan. For example, your plan should specify:

  • which days each parent exercises custody
  • where visits will take place
  • what time visitation begins and ends
  • each parent’s responsibility for transportation between visits, and
  • where the parent will drop-off or pick-up the child.

Below are some considerations for your parenting plan.

Parenting Time Schedule

In addition to identifying how you will share legal custody (decision-making power on your child’s behalf) and physical custody (where your child lives and how much time your child will spend with each parent) your parenting plan should include a visitation schedule. For example, where will your child live during the school year? Will one parent have weeknight or weekend visitation? Where will your child spend holidays, summer vacation, winter break, and birthdays?

Your agreement should address visitation exchanges, including where drop-offs will occur and each parent’s responsibility for transportation expenses. A complete parenting plan will also have provisions for make-up visitation when a visit can’t take place due to a parent’s or child’s illness or other obligation.

Medical and Health Care

Your parenting plan should explain which parent is responsible for providing health insurance coverage for the child and address each parent’s responsibility for health care premiums, co-pays, and medical bills. Your agreement may make one parent responsible for insurance coverage, but may require the other parent to be responsible for coverage if it becomes available to him or her at a lower cost.

You may also want to address each parent’s responsibility for taking a child to doctor, dentist, therapy, or other appointments. Typically, each parent has the responsibility to notify the other within a reasonable time if the child has been ill. Even in cases where one parent has sole legal custody, both parents have the right to make emergency medical decisions on the child’s behalf.

Education and Extracurricular Activities

The child will likely attend school in the district where the parent with primary custody lives. If parents share custody and live in different districts, it’s important to specify where a child will attend school. A child’s special needs, if any, should also be addressed in the parenting plan.

Even though your agreement will spell out legal and physical custody, it should also specify which parent(s) has access to a child’s school records and how that information may be shared between the parents. You may also want to address whether one or both parents may remove a child from school under certain circumstances.

Finally, it’s common for parents to share responsibility for costs and time associated with allowing a child to participate in extracurricular activities. Your agreement may limit a child to a certain number of extracurricular activities for which the parents may share financial responsibility. Keep in mind a noncustodial parent can’t be forced to pay for all or half of a child’s extracurricular activity unless it’s specified in a parenting plan or official court order. If a custodial parent registers a child for an extracurricular activity without the other parent’s consent, the custodial parent may be responsible for all costs associated with the activity.

Communication

Your agreement should also discuss communication between the parents and between a parent and child. Specifically, your agreement should specify the frequency of communication, what information needs to be communicated (a child’s illness, school information, medical information), method of communication (e-mail, text messages, phone calls), and emergency communication. You may also want to address travel plans and contact during travel.

Relocation

Will you be able to modify custody and/or parenting time if one parent relocates? Some states have relocation rules, but you can also specify that new visitation rules apply if a parent moves a certain distance away.

Other Issues

In addition to the above, you may want to set forth some basic ground rules in your parenting plan. For example, your agreement may require each parent to avoid drugs and alcohol while caring for the child and ensure that the child wears a seat belt or uses a car seat when traveling with either parent.

Your agreement can also specify rules for bedtime, homework, electronic usage, and may place limitations on each parent’s right to post pictures of the child on social media. You should include any rules that are important to you and your family.

What Factors Should I Consider When Making a Parenting Plan?

A judge will review your parenting plan to ensure that it serves your child’s best interests. You can help ensure that your parenting plan meets your child's needs by taking a few factors into account when drafting your plan. Specifically, you should consider:

  • each parent’s strengths
  • each parent’s work schedule
  • the child’s involvement in school and community
  • the child’s educational, medical, and emotional needs
  • the child’s special needs, if any
  • the child’s relationship with each parent and siblings
  • each parent’s ability to put the child’s needs before his or her own, and
  • your child’s age.

Your parenting plan must meet your state’s guidelines. Many state and local courts offer parenting plan forms on their websites. If you have additional questions about what to include in a parenting plan, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What happens if my spouse and I can’t reach an agreement on a parenting plan? Can we each submit our own to the court?
  • Will I be able to change my parenting plan later?
  • My spouse and I reached a parenting plan agreement, but he’s now taken a job out of state. What can I do if my parenting plan doesn’t address relocation?
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