Parenting Agreements

Practical steps to help you create a workable parenting plan with your child's other parent.

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If you are divorcing and you have kids, one of the most important tasks ahead of you is to make an agreement with your spouse about how youll continue to parent together. No matter how angry you may be or how difficult your communication with your spouse is, put your children first and do everything you can to make decisions together with your spouse, rather than letting a judge or court evaluator make them for you. This means keeping an open mind and getting whatever professional help you might need -- from a therapist, a custody evaluator, or a family mediator.

What Is a Parenting Agreement?

A written parenting agreement or parenting plan is a document that defines how you and your ex-spouse are going to share time and decision making when it comes to your kids. A parenting agreement is helpful in setting the stage for a successful post-divorce relationship because it helps you set clear expectations, which in turn can reduce conflict. Just the process of creating an agreement allows you and your future ex-spouse to discuss the issues that will come up during your children's lives and how you want to handle those issues. Your parenting agreement can be made into a court order, too, so that you can enforce it if your ex doesnt live up to its terms.

Topics you should cover in writing your agreement include:

  • custody and living arrangements
  • visitation
  • financial issues (child support and expenses)
  • education
  • medical care
  • religious training, and
  • holidays.

How to Create a Parenting Agreement

You can work with your ex-spouse to negotiate and write down a parenting agreement yourselves, or you can seek the help of a child custody mediator or other specialist. 

Either way, it makes sense to collect and review all relevant documents before you begin. If you're in the midst of a divorce, or if you've already been involved in custody proceedings, these might include:

  • court documents you have filed or received, such as a "summons," "petition," "complaint," "response," "answer," "declaration," or "affidavit"
  • correspondence from an attorney, counselor, mediator, or court official regarding your separation, divorce, paternity, child support, custody, or visitation
  • court orders regarding a legal separation, divorce, paternity declaration, or award of custody
  • previously mediated, arbitrated, or negotiated agreements between you and the other parent
  • documents dissolving your religious marriage or describing your marital status and your options according to your religious denomination, and
  • reports, letters, or evaluations from school officials, counselors, therapists, or others who have an insight into your children.

You won't necessarily need all of these documents to develop a parenting plan. Nevertheless, having them can help expedite matters, especially if you are going through a legal separation or divorce. For example, if you or the other parent have already initiated a court proceeding, you may have a deadline for submitting your parenting agreement.

Carefully read the documents you gather. If you need help in finding or understanding any of them, an attorney, court clerk, paralegal, marriage counselor, or mediator might be useful. Some of these folks might also be able to help you work with your spouse.

After youve collected the documents, meet with your spouse and, if you decide to use a professional, with the third person whos going to help you negotiate the agreement. It might take more than one meeting to come up with a complete agreement, but it will be well worth the time.

Once the agreement is complete, its a good idea to make it a part of your divorce file and have the judge approve it. It might be part of your final settlement agreement or you might file it separatelybut, either way, the judge will sign it so that it becomes enforceable, meaning that if either of you dont comply with its terms, the other person can return to court and ask the judge to require you to do what the agreement says.

Resources for Creating a Parenting Agreement

You might consider using a family law mediator to help you work out a parenting plan that's in everyone's best interests. For more information, see the Divorce Mediation section of Nolo's website.

In addition, Nolo publishes a helpful book called Child Custody: Building Parenting Agreements That Work, by Mimi E. Lyster, that shows you how to build your own custody and visitation agreement.

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