You’re getting divorced and you have kids. You know that you are going to need to make some sort of a parenting plan with your soon-to-be-ex. But you have no idea of what should be in it or how to go about doing it.
You understand that you are going to need to put together a schedule for when you and your spouse will each see your kids. You assume that your parenting plan should also say something about custody. But beyond that, you’re at a loss about what else your parenting plan should contain.
What IS a Parenting Plan?
A parenting plan is an outline of how you and your spouse intend to raise your kids. It’s a blueprint that lays out the schedule, ground rules, and behaviors you will use to raise your children from the date of your divorce until your kids turn 18.
For parents, a parenting plan is probably one of the most important documents in their divorce.
It’s important not only because it memorializes your goals and values as parents. But it’s also important because, if you and your ex start to disagree about how to raise your kids after your divorce, your parenting plan will become your bible.
It will be an enforceable rulebook that a court will use when you and your ex can’t create your own rules for your kids.
Of course, if you and your ex are on good terms after your divorce, you may never need to consult your rulebook again. You can stick it in a drawer and let it gather dust until your youngest child graduates from high school.
But, if you and your ex can’t agree on what time of day it is after your divorce, your parenting plan will become the most-used legal document you’ve ever made. It will dictate when you see your kids, what you do with your kids, and how you make decisions for your kids.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know for sure when you’re getting a divorce how well you will continue to get along with your ex long after your divorce. That’s why making a parenting plan that actually works for you and your family right from the start is critical.
How Long Should A Parenting Plan Be?
Once you understand just how important your parenting plan is, you may be tempted to make sure it covers everything you could possibly think of that relates to your kids. After all, the more comprehensive your parenting plan is, the better, right?
Having a gigantic parenting plan can be just as bad as having a tiny one. Why?
First, if your parenting plan is too long, finding the appropriate portion of it in any given circumstance becomes challenging. Plus, the longer your document is, the more likely it will be that some of the provisions will conflict. That’s a problem.
Conflicting or confusing documents won’t help you and your ex resolve future parenting disagreements. Those kinds of documents are also not legally enforceable. (… unless you like paying divorce lawyers tens of thousands of dollars to argue about what your parenting plan really means!)
So making a parenting plan that is as long as a Game of Thrones novel is generally a bad idea. But so is making a parenting plan that’s no longer than a sound bite.
Just like Goldilocks, you need a parenting plan that’s not too long, and not short. You need a parenting plan that is clear, comprehensive, and specific, without being overwhelming.
That’s why making a workable parenting plan is both an art and a science.
What Should Be In Your Parenting Plan?
While many people think that a “parenting plan” is just a schedule of when you and your ex see your kids, a good parenting plan is much, much more than that.
Here are some of the things that will be in a good parenting plan:
Custody/Decision Making Designation.
A clear statement of who has legal custody of your kids. If, like in Illinois, your state has abolished the word “custody,” your parenting plan should state how you and/or your ex will make decisions for your children in these major areas:
d. Extra-curricular activities
A detailed parenting schedule stating who has the kids on any given day, including on holidays and vacations. (Remember to also include a statement about who drives the kids in parenting time exchanges.)
Dispute Resolution Process
A simple process for resolving any future parenting disputes if you and your ex disagree on something.
Right of First Refusal
A statement of whether you and your spouse have the right of first refusal if either of you needs to miss parenting time with your kids. You also need to flesh out the specifics of that right. For example, you need to state the length of time one of you needs to be gone to trigger that right.
A list of the different kinds of information you and your ex need to exchange about your kids (medical records, school records, etc) AND a statement of how you will exchange that information. You should also have a list of the information about yourself that you will have to share with your ex while your kids are minors (i.e. address, employment and cell phone information).
What happens if you or your ex wants to move away and take the children with you? You need to establish a process or procedure that outlines what you have to do if one of you wants to move.
A clear set of “rules” for dealing with certain thorny parenting issues, such as when and how you (and your ex) can introduce your kids to a new significant other.
A “morality clause” stating whether you and your ex have to be married to your new romantic partner before s/he can spend the night when your kids are around.
Codes of Parenting Conduct.
A statement of how you and your ex will (and won’t!) talk about each other to the kids. You also should indicate whether there are things you agree you WON’T talk to the kids about (like money!).
A statement of when and how you will review your parenting plan and make any necessary changes. (Unlike diamonds, parenting plans are not forever! You need to review and update them at least every year.)
Who Needs a Parenting Plan?
If you’re a divorcing parent with minor children, you need a parenting plan.
If you and your spouse are able to agree on the “kid issues” in your divorce, you may disagree. You may think that you won’t really need a parenting plan. Or, you may think that, because you are getting along so well (at least about the kids), your parenting plan can be “bare bones.”
Thinking any of those things is a mistake.
Life changes. So do relationships. Just because you and your spouse are getting along well right now, that doesn’t mean that you will always get along that way.
Plus, if either you or your spouse remarries, or gets involved in a new romantic relationship, your respective partners can complicate your parenting relationship.
Having a workable parenting plan is like having an insurance policy. If you never need it: Great! Kudos to you and your ex for navigating co-parenting so successfully!
But if you do need it, you’ll be really glad you have it.
Plus, whether you think you need it or not, courts require it.
Tips for Making a Parenting Plan that Works
What to DO:
Take into consideration everyone’s personality, temperament, and parenting style when making your parenting plan.
If you and your spouse are relatively reasonable and amicable, your parenting plan can be flexible. When you know that you can work together as co-parents, you don’t have to go crazy dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” in your legal documents.
On the other hand, if your spouse is a narcissist, or super controlling, then your parenting plan needs to be much more detailed. You need to make sure you clearly set forth the rules of how you will parent in every way that is important to you. Otherwise, you will spend more time arguing with your ex over parenting issues after your divorce than you did before your divorce was final.
You also need to consider your child when making your parenting plan. If your child has special needs, your parenting plan should take those needs into account. For example, you might need to set out specific procedures for handling medical issues, or dealing with tutors.
Make sure your Parenting Plan covers all of the parenting issues that are important to you.
This includes parenting time and transportation to and from parenting time. Your parenting plan should discuss “The Right of First Refusal.” (This right gives each parent the opportunity to babysit the kids before anyone calls a sitter.) You might want it to contain a morality clause. That clause establishes whether you or your ex can have an unmarried “friend” spend the night while your kids are around. Your Parenting Plan should also cover how you will make decisions about religion, education, healthcare, and your children’s extracurricular activities. In sum, your parenting plan should lay out the rules for how you and your ex will communicate and share information regarding the children.
Make sure your parenting time schedule is complete.
Your parenting schedule should cover regular parenting time as well as holidays and vacations. Even if you think its overkill, it doesn’t hurt to clearly state the time each holiday begins and ends. (e.g. does Christmas Eve end at 10:00pm on Dec. 24 or at 10:00am on Dec. 25?)
When you’re making your parenting schedule you also need to think about which kind of parenting time comes first, second or third. For example, if you want vacation time to trump regular time, you need to say that. If holidays trump everything, you need to say that.
Finally, if your kids are young and can’t drive, make sure you lay out which parent is responsible for dropping off and picking up the kids. While that may seem like a minor detail now, if you’re the one who gets stuck doing all the driving later, you won’t think this issue is so minor then!
Make sure your Parenting Plan is clear.
You want something that is written in plain English and that is easy to understand. While that seems simple enough, lawyers often write documents that are harder to read (and more complicated!) than the instruction manuals for assembling Ikea furniture.
If your divorce lawyer puts language in your parenting plan that you don’t understand, ASK YOUR LAWYER what it means! While you’re at it, ask your lawyer if there is a simpler way you can say whatever it is that your parenting plan is trying to say. If your lawyer is annoyed with you, that’s too bad. Remember: This is YOUR parenting plan!
(Btw, don’t feel dumb for asking for an explanation if you don’t understand something! It’s better to feel dumb for a couple of seconds than to spend years stuck with a bad agreement that you could have changed if you had only spoken up.)
What NOT to Do:
Write a Parenting Plan that is longer than War and Peace.
A parenting plan is supposed to be a blueprint of how you and your ex will handle parenting issues after your divorce. It is not supposed to be a manifesto covering every possible parenting issue that might arise from the time of the divorce until your child graduates from college.
Yes, if you have a difficult spouse, your parenting plan is going to need to be more detailed than it would be if your spouse was easier to deal with. But, even still, writing a 100 page parenting plan is overkill!
Remember Goldilocks. Having an enormous plan is just as bad as having no plan at all.
Avoid dealing with “hot-button” issues just to get the Parenting Plan done.
If you and your spouse don’t agree on some serious parenting issues, you need to face that reality now. (Sorry!)
Pushing off hard decisions may help you settle your divorce right now. But it will also make it much more likely that you end up in post-decree divorce court later.
For example, if you are Christian and your spouse is Jewish and you don’t agree on whether your 12 year old son should have a bar mitzvah, you need to deal with that issue BEFORE you are divorced! Kicking the can down the road virtually guarantees you’re going to be back in court fighting with your ex as soon as your divorce is over.
Use your Parenting Plan to “get back at” or control your spouse.
Fighting to “get” things you will never use, just so you make yourself feel good (or make your spouse feel bad) is a waste of time and energy. It also ultimately hurts your kids.
For example, if you know you have to work on days like President’s Day, Columbus Day etc., and your spouse doesn’t, don’t fight to get time with your kids on those days! While it might look good on paper to have your kids on those days, if you’re only going to have to get a baby sitter on those days, what are you fighting for?
(Yes, in some states, the amount of time you have with your children affects the amount of child support you have to pay or will receive. But if that’s the real reason you’re fighting to get that time, then shame on you! Bite the bullet and put your kids’ interests first!)
Sign an agreement you know you can’t live with.
Another way that parents sometimes avoid dealing with hot button issues is by agreeing on paper that they will do something that they never really intend to do. Doing that will NOT set you up for co-parenting success. It’s also likely to get you in trouble with the court.
Divorce judgments are court orders. They are not suggestions. If you don’t follow a court order, you can be held in contempt of court. You can also end up paying penalties and attorney’s fees. Or you can lose parenting time and even custody. You can also end up in jail.
The bottom line is that you should never sign an agreement that you don’t intend to keep! It doesn’t matter that you’re betting that your soon-to-be-ex won’t have the money or the energy to take you back to court later and fight about it. Once you say you are going to do something – you need to do it! That’s called integrity.
How to Make a Parenting Plan That Works
If you want to make a parenting plan that works for your family, you need to start by knowing what you want and need for your kids going forward.
A good divorce lawyer, mediator, divorce coach, or other divorce specialist can help alert you to the potential issues you may want to cover in your parenting plan. But, it’s still up to you to ask the right questions and get the education you need before you agree to anything.
Once you and your spouse have reached an agreement (assuming that you are able to do that) you’re going to want to make sure that your lawyer carefully drafts your parenting plan so that it accurately reflects ALL the terms of your agreement.
Ultimately, your parenting plan is going to be one of the most important documents in your divorce for both you and your children. If your plan fits your family’s needs co-parenting after divorce will be much smoother and easier for everyone.