When parents separate or divorce, how the children will be cared for becomes an issue. The legal term “parenting plan” refers to a written plan that states with whom the children will primarily live, a definitive schedule for visiting with the other parent, who will make major decisions regarding the children’s lives, and other important issues. A parenting plan may be agreed upon by the parents, though it is still a good idea to put it in writing and submit it to the court to be made an order.
When parents cannot agree, the court may order them to work with a mediator to come up with a parenting plan that is in the best interests of the children. If the parents still cannot agree, the court often takes the recommendation of the mediator and makes it a Child Custody and Visitation Order. To explore this concept, consider the following parenting plan definition.
Definition of Parenting Plan
- A written plan for parenting children, made when parents separate, that specifies how children will share time with each parent. It also addresses decision-making in the children’s important life issues.
What is a Parenting Plan
A joint custody parenting plan, sometimes referred to as a “custody agreement,” or “parenting agreement,” provides a road map to caring for the couple’s children when they separate or divorce. Having a written plan that addresses how the children’s time will be shared with each parent, how such issues as schooling, religion, and daycare will be dealt with, and even such minute details as which parent will pick up or deliver the children for visitation, helps avoid conflict in the future. A joint custody parenting plan helps the parents work together and reduces conflict, which then sets a good example and a feeling of stability for the children. In most jurisdictions, an approved parenting plan is required before a court will finalize issues related to custody or divorce.
How a Parenting Plan is Created
If the parents can work together, they can sit down and work out the details of a joint custody parenting plan that will be acceptable to the court. The parents should begin by creating an outline of the important issues, filling in the details of each issue afterward. If either parent is represented by an attorney, they may be able to obtain a sample parenting plan to give them a road map to creating their own.
Often times, the issues of divorce and child custody create hot emotions that make it difficult for parents to develop a custody agreement on their own. In such a case, the court will get involved. In most jurisdictions, the parents are required to work with a neutral third party, usually in court-ordered mediation. Each parent provides to the mediator a written proposal for child custody and visitation. The mediator reviews the facts of the divorce and separation, reviews the parents’ statements, and meets separately with the children who are old enough to be interviewed.
The mediator finally meets with the parents together, in an attempt to help them reach an agreement. If there is a problem with the parents meeting together, such as allegations of spousal abuse, or there is a protective order in place, the mediator will meet with the parents separately. When the parents still cannot agree, the mediator provides a recommendation for child custody and visitation to the judge, which is most often made into a legally binding and enforceable court order. In the event the parents create a parenting plan, but do not submit it to the court to become an order, it may be unenforceable in the event one parent violates the agreement.
What a Parenting Plan Includes
A parenting plan includes guidelines for the living arrangements and visitation schedules for the children, as well as how a host of other issues will be handled by the parents. There is not a specific set of issues that must be covered in a parenting plan set by law, though in most jurisdictions, the courts have come up with a plan that includes all of the issues that commonly come before them. The most commonly a parenting plan includes:
- Contact Information – the full address and phone number where each parent can be reached by the other, as well as the address at which the children will be housed with each parent.
- Visitation Schedule – the amount of parenting time allotted to each parent, and a schedule of that time
- Holiday and School Break Schedule – which holidays and school breaks each parent will have with the children
- Out of State Travel – whether out of state travel is allowed without permission from the court, and the details of how it will be handled
- Transportation – which parent will be responsible for transporting the children between parental exchanges
- Health Insurance and Healthcare Expenses – which parent is responsible for providing health insurance, and how healthcare not covered by insurance will be paid for
- Notification of Parental Move – how each parent must be notified if the other parents moves to a new home
- Education – which parent will make important decisions regarding education, religious upbringing, daycare, extracurricular activities, and other issues
- Payment for Extracurricular Activities – how the parents will pay for the children’s extracurricular activities
- Child Support – support payments are often dealt with in a separate agreement, but may be included in a parenting plan
- Tax Deductions – which parent will claim the children as dependents on their taxes
The needs of the family often dictate just what is included in the plan, but it is wise make the plan overly-inclusive, rather than to leave things out. Even with a court-ordered child custody agreement, the parents may make adjustments as needed, as long as they both agree. The exact nature of the custody order only comes into play when there is conflict – so having a parenting plan with holes in it is likely to land the parents back in court.
Finalizing a Parenting Plan
In most jurisdictions, when a parenting plan is submitted to the court for approval, a hearing is held. During the hearing, the judge will verify that both parents understand the information as presented in the plan, and whether each chooses to voluntarily sign it. This is done to ensure the judge is satisfied that the agreement was made in a fair manner, and that both parties understand the implications of the plan and what it entails. In the event one or both parents are not willing to approve a plan resulting from court-ordered mediation, the parties will have an opportunity to state their case. In finalizing a parenting plan, the judge will make an order based on what is in the best interests of the children.
Long Distance Parenting Plan
It is not uncommon for parents to live in separate cities, or even separate states, making it necessary to come up with a long distance parenting plan for custody and visitation of their children. A long distance parenting plan contains all of the elements of a standard parenting plan, with the addition of specifics of how the long distance nature of the custody and visitation will be handled. Some important elements to include in a long distance parenting plan include:
Provisions for how the children will stay in frequent contact with the non-custodial parent should be included. These may include allowing the children unlimited an unmonitored email, phone, and video chat communication with the other parent.
Because weekly visitation is not possible in a long distance parenting relationship, the visitation schedule should include regular visits over holidays and vacation time, as well as any other times that are convenient for the parents. This visitation schedule should be described specifically in legal terms.
Provisions for how the children will travel to visit the non-custodial parent, and how they will return, should be specified. This should include details for airline and driving transportation, such as:
- Whether the children will take a direct flight (until a specified age)
- Specifying which airports the children can fly into and out of
- Specifying which parent will make flight arrangements
- Specifying which parent will be responsible for driving the children for visitation
- Specifying how travel expenses will be paid for
Parenting Plan Modifications
Parenting plans are based on the needs of the children and family at the time the plan is made. It is common for the family to need to make modifications to a parenting plan, as the needs of the family change. Parenting plan modifications may be agreed to by the parents, but must be placed in writing and approved by the court in order to create a legally binding agreement. If the parents cannot agree, one may file a motion for parenting plan modifications with the court, specifying what changes are being requested, and the reason behind those changes.
During a hearing on the matter, both parents will have an opportunity to present their arguments to the court before the judge makes a decision. In cases in which there is serious conflict as to the modifications to a parenting plan, the judge often orders the parents back to mediation, and that process starts all over again.
Frequent and Continuing Contact
One of the primary purposes of a parenting plan, or “custody order,” is to ensure the children have frequent and continuing contact with both parents. This means that the children spend an adequate amount of quality time with each parent, and that the lines of communication between the children and each parent are always open. This is so important to the healthy emotional development of the children that courts often give primary physical custody to the parent most likely to encourage frequent and continuing contact with the other parent.
Violating a Parenting Plan
When a parenting plan becomes an order of the court, it becomes legally binding and enforceable. Both parents are obligated to follow the provisions of the custody order or face legal consequences. In the event a parent feels the other is seriously violating a parenting plan, such as refusing to return a child to his primary residence, police can be called. However, police can only enforce an agreement that is an order of the court, and the reporting parent will need to show them the order.
In the event one parent continually violates a custody order, the other parent can file a petition with the court to have him or her held in contempt of court. If the judge then finds the accused parent guilty of violating the plan, he may modify the custody order to benefit the other parent, and to protect the children from such non-cooperation.
For example, if Rob has visitation with his daughter every other weekend. While he shows up on time, the mother, Mary, has refused to allow him to take the daughter with him on five occasions. Rob can petition the court to hold Mary in contempt. If Rob can prove to the court that Mary is violating the parenting plan, the court may make changes to the order, which could be a serious as giving primary physical custody to Rob instead of Mary.
It is not uncommon for angry parents to try to sway their children to their “side,” or to turn the children against the other parent. When a parent attempts to coerce a child into thinking the other parent is a bad person, or at fault for the divorce, it causes serious damage to the parent-child relationship, and inflicts emotional distress on the child. This behavior is known as “parental alienation.” In severe cases, children have been so brainwashed by one parent that they have refused to see or speak to the other parent.
While parental alienation occurs because one or both parents have feelings of anger and emotional pain because of the failed relationship, their inability to separate those feelings from parenting their children causes lasting, sometimes irreparable harm to the children. It is for this reason that the courts take parental alienation very seriously.
While some judges will order the parents and child to participate in counseling to resolve an issue of parental alienation, the issue remains of whether the child will be forced to spend time with a parent he hates or fears. Other judges are quick to respond to proven cases of parental alienation, removing custody of the child from the alienating parent, and placing him with the parent seen to encourage the child to have a relationship with both parents.
Parenting Plan Examples
When parents can agree on a parenting plan that works for all involved, the resulting plan is often more convenient, and less stressful on both parents and children. Using parenting plan examples to create a plan that can be submitted to the court during custody proceedings helps streamline the process, and helps ensure all of the important issues are covered. Parents can find parenting plan examples online by searching for plans specific to their state.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Authority – The right or power to make decisions, give orders, or to control something or someone.
- Contempt – A deliberate act of disobedience, or disregard for public authority, such as a court.
- Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Legally Binding – An agreement that is written and enforceable by law.