When parents divorce or separate, how can they ensure that their children’s best interests are met? That is the goal of the Parenting Plan, a legal document that determines where the children will live (the primary residential parent) and how much time each parent spends with the children (the residential schedule). What many parents don’t realize is that a parenting plan can also address a multitude of other important issues regarding how you will co-parent your kids.
While there’s a “pattern form” available from the court to be used in creating a parenting plan, you aren’t limited to what’s on the form. There are many other considerations that one should take into account in writing or agreeing to such a plan, as well as important issues not outlined in the pattern form that can be added.
Addressing any risks a parent may present
When a parent presents a risk to a child, an experienced family law attorney is needed to find the best and safest solution for the children and the inquiring parent when:
- A parent has substance abuse issues, or there have been issues of domestic violence in the relationship. These issues will need to be addressed in the residential schedule.
- One parent needs to undergo treatment to have any significant residential time with the children.
- One parent must be supervised, either by a professional or a friend of the family, whenever that parent spends time with the children.
- If a parent has very little relationship at all with his or her children.
- Some form of reunification counseling is needed before that parent spends much time with the children.
Handling exchanges of the children
As co-parents, the most frequent interactions happen when handing over the children to the other parent. A parenting plan should definitely cover how the parents will exchange the children for their respective residential times.
- Is it better to exchange the children at the parent’s respective homes or in a more neutral location, such as a Starbucks or at their school?
- If the exchange is at the parent’s homes, which parent will deliver the children for any given exchange?
- Are third parties allowed to take the children to the exchanges and, if so, do both parents need to approve the third parties used for this purpose?
- Do the parents want to make sure that approved car seats are used and that anyone who drives the children is licensed and properly insured?
Introducing a parent’s new romantic partner
The issue of a new romantic partner often results in conflict for divorced parents. Laying out some guidelines to follow in the parenting plan can help ease what is often an uncomfortable situation.
- Does a parent have to notify the other parent before introducing the children to a new domestic partner?
- Does a parent need to wait a specified period of time after beginning a new relationship before he or she can introduce the new partner to the children?
Some parents may have concerns about discipline or home environment issues that are a matter of their child’s safety. These can also be addressed in a parenting plan. For instance:
- Will spanking or other forms of corporal punishment be allowed or should they be prohibited?
- Should the parenting plan prohibit smoking in the child’s vicinity?
- Should it state that guns are not allowed in the home or that, if allowed, they will be unloaded and stored in an approved gun safe?
Making decisions about the child
A parenting plan should state if one parent or both parents will make decisions regarding a child’s education, extra-curricular activities, non-emergency medical care, and other matters. If the parents choose to make decisions jointly, but cannot agree, the parenting plan should also detail how a dispute will be resolved.
It is standard to include non-emergency medical, educational and religious decisions, but what if the parents anticipate conflict in other areas?
- What if one parent opposes standard vaccinations?
- What if one parent wishes to raise the child vegan and gluten free?
- Do the parents want to agree on when a child can have their ears pierced or get a tattoo?
Taking vacations and traveling with the child
Parenting plans should also include how vacation and travel will be dealt with. For instance:
- If a parent wants to take a vacation without the children, what kind of advance notice must be given to the non-traveling parent if the vacation occurs during their allocated residential time with the children?
- If a parent wants to travel with the children, how is this arranged and what kind of notice is required?
And what about international travel?
If either parent is likely to travel to or move to a foreign country, such provisions must be addressed in your parenting plan and an attorney experienced in international family law issues should be consulted.
- Is it okay to take the children out of the country and, if so, who will hold their passports until the travel starts?
- Are there any countries that they cannot visit?
Some parents worry about their co-parent taking a child out of the country and not returning. Many countries have signed the Hague Treaty on the International Aspects of Child Abduction, which means those countries will enforce any residential order entered in the United States. Non-signatory countries will not. This means that, for example, if a child is taken to Canada and not returned, any United States order can be enforced in Canada. However, if a child is taken to Russia, China or other non-signatory country, the United States order would be essentially unenforceable.
As an initial matter, a parent should seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney to determine the best next steps. It is more efficient and ultimately less costly to come prepared to any meeting with your attorney. It’s a good idea to review the court’s pattern parenting plan form and to think about these and other issues before any meeting to best optimize your time with your counsel. If a parent has a general idea as to their preferences in these areas, their attorney can then ask the right questions to narrow down and draft a plan that best meets the family’s needs and goals. By working together in this manner, a comprehensive and effective parenting plan can most easily be achieved.