Building a Parenting Agreement That Works
Child Custody Agreements Step by Step
September 2010, 7th Edition
Avoid custody battles -- save time, money and grief
Working out a fair and realistic child custody agreement is one of the most difficult tasks for parents going through a divorce or separation. Building a Parenting Agreement That Works is the only book to show separating or divorcing parents how to overcome obstacles and create win-win custody agreements.
A professional mediator, author Mimi Lyster sets out 40 issues separating parents typically face, and presents all the options to resolving them. The book walks you through all the factors you must consider, including:
- medical care
- religious training
- living arrangements
- money issues
- dealing with changes in an existing agreement
- how to handle new partners
- working with professionals
The updated 7th edition includes checklists and worksheets to help you complete the included fill-in-the-blank custody agreement, and provides the current custody laws of your state. It also contains new information on "moveaway" laws.
“Clear, practical advice…and strategies for effective negotiations.”
-New York Daily News
“A step-by-step guide meant to help even the most hostile couples work out terms for raising their children after the family splits.”
“The author draws on her experience as a professional mediator to give real-life solutions to some of the most common custody issues.”
-New Orleans Times-Picayune
- Worksheet 1: Describe Your Child
- Worksheet 2: Describe Your Relationship With Your Child
- Worksheet 3: Adding the Details
- Worksheet 4: Checklist of Issues for Your Parenting Agreement
- Parenting Agreement
Mimi Lyster Zemmelman has been active in dispute resolution and other facilitated decision-making processes for 25 years. She brings experiences as a mediator, trainer, facilitator, strategic planner, and court policy analyst to her work with families, businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations. Zemmelman has co-founded a community mediation program, served on the California Dispute Resolution Council, the State Bar's Committee and was appointed to the 2020 California Court futures Commission. She maintains a limited private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Add Your Own Review
- Make Your Own Custody Decisions If Possible
- What If We Need Outside Help?
- Balancing Parenting and Financial Issues
- Why This Book Is Unique
- A Word to Skeptics
- What If You Just Want to Fight?
Part I: Getting Started
1. Taking Stock of Your Situation
- You Are Not Alone
- Keep Your Parenting Plan Focused on Your Children
- It Gets Easier Over Time
- Learn How to Negotiate
- If the Other Parent Is Absent
- If There Is Violence or Abuse in the Family
2. An Introduction to Parenting Agreements
- What Parenting Agreements Cover
- Advantages of Parent-Negotiated Agreements
- Goals of a Successful Parenting Agreement
- Parenting Agreements and Custody
3. Getting Organized
- Organize and Review Documents
- Completing the Worksheets
- Sample Worksheets
4. How to Negotiate a Parenting Agreement
- Knowing What You Need and Want
- When Conflict Gets in the Way
- Using Effective Negotiation and Problem-Solving Strategies
- Breaking Through Impasses
- Knowing Where to Get Help and Support
Part II: Your Parenting Agreement
5. Building Your Agreement
- Where to Begin
- Cooperate! Cooperate! Cooperate!
- Get Outside Help
- Keep Your Agreement Current
6. Basic Elements
- Issue 1: Where Our Children Will Live
- Issue 2: Medical, Dental, and Vision Care
- Issue 3: Negative Comments or Remarks
- Issue 4: Consistency in Raising Children
- Issue 5: Holidays
- Issue 6: Education
- Issue 7: Insurance
- Issue 8: Making Decisions
- Issue 9: Resolving Disputes
- Issue 10: Labeling the Custody Arrangement
7. More Parenting Issues
- Issue 11: Exchanging Information
- Issue 12: Child Care
- Issue 13: Special Occasions and Family Events
- Issue 14: Vacations
- Issue 15: Outside Activities
- Issue 16: Transportation Between Parents’ Homes
- Issue 17: Improving Transition Times
- Issue 18: Maintaining Contact
- Issue 19: Grandparents, Relatives, and Important Friends
- Issue 20: Psychiatric and Other Mental Health Care
- Issue 21: Religious Training
- Issue 22: Surname
- Issue 23: Treating Each Child as an Individual
- Issue 24: Separating the Adult Relationship Issues From the Parenting Issues
- Issue 25: Making Routine Changes
- Issue 26: Making Big Changes
- Issue 27: Explaining the Agreement to Your Children
8. Serious Situations
- Issue 28: Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, and Child Neglect
- Issue 29: Alcohol or Drug Abuse
- Issue 30: Undermining the Parent-Child Relationship
- Issue 31: Denying Access to the Children
- Issue 32: If Extended Family Members or Close Friends Are Fueling the Dispute
9. Special Challenges
- Issue 33: Moving
- Issue 34: When Parenting Styles and Values Differ
- Issue 35: When a Parent Needs to Develop Parenting Skills
- Issue 36: When Parents Have New Partners
- Issue 37: If Our Homes Are Far Apart
- Issue 38: When Nonrelatives Live in the Home
- Issue 39: Reinvolving a Parent Who Has Been Absent
- Issue 40: Driving and Owning a Car, Motorcycle, or Off-Road Vehicle
- Issue 41: International Travel and Passports
- Issue 42: Military Service
- Issue 43: Allowing Underage Marriage
Part III: Beyond Your Parenting Agreement
10. Child Support, Alimony, and Jointly Owned Property
- Understanding Child Support
- Understanding Alimony or Spousal Support
- Negotiating Child and Spousal Support
- Dividing Jointly Owned Property
11. Making Mediation and Arbitration Work for You
- How Mediation Works
- Why Mediation Works
- Proposing Mediation
- Understanding Basic Mediation Techniques
- Why Mediation Works in Very Difficult Cases
- What Mediators Don’t Do
- Choosing Between Court-Ordered and Private Mediation
- When the Mediator Makes a Recommendation to the Court
- Custody Evaluations
- Choosing a Mediator
- Preparing for Mediation
- If You Can’t Reach an Agreement
- Alternatives to Mediation
12. Making Changes
- Why Changes Are Necessary—And How to Handle Them
- When You Are the One Initiating Change
- When You Are the One Responding to a Request for Change
- When Tensions Are Running High
- What to Do After You Negotiate the Changes
13. Understanding Your Children’s Needs
- Strategies for Your Children at Any Age
- Strategies for Your Children at Different Ages and Developmental Stages
- Strategies for Children With Special Needs
14. Multiracial, Multicultural, and International Families
- Accommodating Differences in Child-Rearing Practices
- Encouraging Children to Celebrate the Traditions of Both Parents
- Sorting Out the Role of Power Within the Family
- Working Within the American Legal System
- Deciding Whether Another Country Has Authority Over Parenting (Custody) Issues
15. Nontraditional Families
- What Are Nontraditional Families?
- The Legal Relationship of Nontraditional Parents and Children
- Recognizing the Nontraditional Parent’s Role
- Resolving Conflict in a Way That Meets Your Family’s Needs
- Creating New Relationships After the Divorce or Separation
16. State and Federal Laws Affecting Child Custody
- Custody and Visitation
- Best Interests of the Child
- Interference With Custody
- Interstate Custody Disputes
- International Custody Disputes
- Custody and the IRS
17. Help Beyond the Book
- Researching Legal Issues
- Researching Nonlegal Issues
- Research on the Internet
- Finding Professionals Who Can Help
- Additional Resources
Appendix: Tear-Out Forms
- Worksheet 1: Describe Your Child
- Worksheet 2: Describe Your Relationship With Your Child
- Worksheet 3: Adding the Details
- Worksheet 4: Checklist of Issues for Your Parenting Agreement
- Parenting Agreement
Taking Stock of Your Situation
You Are Not Alone.................................................................................................................... 12
Keep Your Parenting Plan Focused on Your Children...................................... 12
It Gets Easier Over Time....................................................................................................... 13
The First Few Weeks......................................................................................................... 13
The First Few Months....................................................................................................... 14
One Year Later....................................................................................................................... 14
The Second Year and Beyond...................................................................................... 14
Learn How to Negotiate........................................................................................................ 15
If the Other Parent Is Absent............................................................................................. 16
If There Is Violence or Abuse in the Family............................................................. 16
Before getting started on your parenting plan, you should understand the context in which your parenting decisions will be made.
You Are Not Alone
Since the middle of the last century, the expectation that two people would meet in their late teens or early 20s, marry, raise a family, and grow old together has changed. Studies undertaken since the mid-1980s show that as many as two-thirds of couples with children will divorce before the children reach adulthood. What remains constant, however, is that children need parents who love and care for them, make good decisions on their behalf, and provide safe and stable homes for them as they grow up. This is true whether a child’s parents are married, unmarried, divorced, single without a partner, part of a same-sex couple, related by blood, or related by adoption.
Although parents with young children face many challenges today, there are also lots of resources out there that can help. For many parents who are separating or divorcing, one challenge is keeping their adult relationship struggles from getting in the way of taking care of their children. While you cannot and should not shield your children from every difficult thing, it is important to stay focused on the fact that divorce is an adult solution to adult problems.
Family, friends, counselors, support groups, and others can make it easier for you to get help dealing with problems related to the end of your marriage or partnership. There are also many resources out there to help you learn about what children need, and how you and their other parent can continue to meet those needs even though you two are no longer together.
Keep Your Parenting Plan Focused on Your Children
You and your children’s other parent are about to undertake a difficult but very important project: making the best possible decisions about your parenting arrangements. Of course, it may be hard to separate the desire to have nothing more to do with your ex from the task of making decisions that are in your children’s interest. After all, separation and divorce exist to solve adult problems, not to meet children’s needs.
Even if your separation or divorce will be better for your children in the long run, for the short term most children feel that things are worse. Divorce or separation can shake a child’s confidence that he or she will continue to be loved, cared for, and safe. This is true even when children understand the reasons behind the decision.
You and the other parent can help your children by using this book to develop an agreement that focuses on meeting your children’s individual needs. The more attention you pay to those needs, the more likely you are to build an agreement that works for all of you.
You and the other parent must honestly assess your relationship as parents and your ability to work together. To keep your agreement focused on your children, you must be willing to trust each other and set aside your anger, frustration, and pain, at least for a while. If you’ve just separated, you may think it will be impossible to trust and cooperate with the other parent. Many find, though, that trusting and cooperative relationships usually evolve over time. One of the most effective strategies for moving toward this kind of relationship is to build on points of agreement until you have crafted a comprehensive parenting plan.
Dealing With Grief, Anger, Pain, Relief, Fear, and Other Messy Emotions
Some compare the end of a marriage or other committed relationship to a death. The dreams that most of us bring to our relationships are huge. Add a child or children into the mix, and the combination is powerful indeed. Losing those dreams or seeing them fade away will stir powerful emotions in both parents. Add to this the fact that children go through their own worries, losses, and pain, and your divorce is likely to be a very difficult time—at least at the beginning.
Is all of this “normal”? In many respects, it would be strange if the changes associated with separation or divorce were not terribly difficult at first—even if you are the one who ended the relationship.
These are times where it makes sense to make space for feeling as if your emotions are out of control, not knowing exactly how you feel, or wondering whether your feelings will ever settle down again. It is also a time to seek out some support. Powerful emotions are just part of the territory when relationships change or end. It’s when you feel alone that the feelings can take over more of your world than may be healthy. Find good friends, relatives, a religious counselor, or trained mental health professional who can hear what you are feeling and help keep things in perspective. In time, the initial pain and turmoil will lessen, and you will be able to move on to a more balanced frame of mind. Remember to look for support for your child as well. Some children feel best confiding in their parents, while others worry about overloading an already-stressed parent, and so try to handle too much on their own.
It Gets Easier Over Time
At the beginning, separation or divorce is often traumatic. Many people behave irrationally or seem unstable. As time passes, however, most parents regain their balance.
Let’s look more closely at the typical emotional stages parents go through when they separate, and how these stages might affect each parent’s ability to reach an effective, child-focused parenting plan.
The First Few Weeks
Just before and just after the initial separation, you will probably feel confused. It may seem that there are an endless number of decisions to make, each of which appears to be the most important. You will probably ride a roller coaster of emotions. On any given day you may have intense feelings of rage, depression, abandonment, relief, grief, guilt, and excitement. In fact, you may decide that ending a relationship, or having one ended for you, has left you feeling like you are going crazy.
This is not the time to worry about charting a permanent course for your children’s future. Instead, try to develop one or more short-term agreements that will allow you, the other parent, and your children to settle in to the new arrangements gradually. By taking it slowly, you will have time to see what makes the most sense in the long run. The key to success is to separate the adult relationship issues from the parenting issues and develop a clear, child-centered plan that each parent can easily follow.
Divorce and Separation Aren’t Only
About Ending an Intimate Relationship
Separation and divorce occur on many levels, including emotional, financial, legal, social, and intimate. Given these complicated changes, you and your ex should think about how you will manage all of these aspects of splitting up. Your child will benefit most when you can separate the adult issues from the parenting issues and keep your child out of the middle.
As you and the other parent gain an understanding of the full scope of your new relationship and the ways in which you will take on new and separate lives, you will find that you are better able to chart your own course, and you will be pleased with the results of your efforts. In fact, the parents who express the greatest levels of satisfaction with their separate parenting agreements are those who take the time to negotiate comprehensive, child-focused agreements that both parents can support.
There are lots of books that can help parents cope at the beginning of a separation or divorce. See Chapter 17 for references.
The First Few Months
Several months after the initial separation, your life will probably be a little calmer, but you may find that your relationship with the other parent can still provoke either or both of you in extreme and unexpected ways. Many parents find it hard to distance themselves from each other when they need to stay in contact because they share children. Your children can be a constant reminder of what has gone on (or has gone wrong) and what remains to be done. You may be experimenting with a new partner or a new approach to how you want to live your life. You may feel annoyed if the other parent’s presence puts a damper on your newfound freedom.
At the other end of the spectrum, you or the other parent may still feel angry, sad, powerless, or abandoned, as you did when you first separated.
If you try to negotiate a parenting plan during this phase, you may find it extremely difficult to reach agreement on any but the easiest issues. Many parents, nevertheless, negotiate temporary parenting arrangements early on, especially to resolve a particular issue, such as where the children will attend school. These parents can start with Chapter 6, “Basic Elements,” and address only the most pressing issues until they are ready to handle more.
One Year Later
A year or more after the initial separation, you may be far more clear-headed about your situation than you were when you first separated. You and the other parent will have firsthand experience with your initial (or temporary) parenting arrangements. You can gauge the effects that these arrangements have had on your life and on your children. At this point, you will probably be ready to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement, and can turn to Chapter 7, “More Parenting Issues,” to add whatever provisions you need.
The Second Year and Beyond
Two years or more following a separation, most families have settled into their first stable parenting arrangement. About this time, many realize that their arrangements need at least a few adjustments to accommodate changes in their own or their children’s lives. In fact, many mediators report that significant numbers of families renegotiate their first parenting agreements at this two-year point.
No matter what stage of the separation you are in, remember that one of the few things you can count on is change. Neither you, the other parent, or your children can (or should) expect the first agreement to be your last one. You can never anticipate all the decisions you will have to make about your children. Certain parts of your agreement will work for the long term, while others will need to be revised regularly.
One of the most common reasons parents have to revise their first agreement is the presence of a parent’s new partner. Children often have strong opinions about new stepparents, boyfriends, or girlfriends. Additionally, when one parent has a new partner—especially the parent with whom the children primarily live—the other parent may need reassurance that the new partner won’t become a replacement parent.
Other changes that can trigger the need for modification of an existing arrangement include:
• a parent’s desire to move because of a new job
• a parent’s desire to move to be closer to relatives
• a child’s special needs or a change in schools, or
• a child’s desire to live with the other parent.
Learn How to Negotiate
Negotiation is the process of reaching an agreement acceptable to the people involved. The more successful the negotiation, the more acceptable the agreement. Negotiation is an integral part of separate parenting for a number of reasons.
• Most parents tend to be involved with their children, at some level, well into their early adulthood. Parents who stay involved in their children’s lives must find a way to work together.
• Children usually want to maintain a relationship with both parents—and they suffer when their parents constantly fight. The better the parents are at negotiating satisfactory solutions to their differences, the better their relationships will be with their children.
• When parents are unable to agree on basic or critical decisions about their children’s health, education, and welfare, a court will step in and impose decisions. These decisions, though aimed at protecting and preserving the best interests of the children, might be very different from what the parents want or feel is appropriate.
Negotiating your parenting agreement is covered in detail in Chapter 4.
Using Mediation to Help You Negotiate
There are several basic approaches to negotiating a parenting agreement. Some parents resolve the issues on their own. Others ask a counselor to help, work with attorneys, or use mediation. Mediation is a process that uses a trained neutral person (someone who has nothing to gain or lose by what you decide) to help you identify the issues to resolve and reach solutions. It offers many advantages because you control the decision-making process—the mediator doesn’t have the power to impose a decision on you.
Mediation is available in all states, either through the court or from private practitioners, and has become very popular—particularly for resolving family conflicts—because it is less adversarial than courtroom litigation. There’s more detail about mediation in Chapter 11.
If the Other Parent Is Absent
This book assumes that both parents are at least minimally involved in their children’s lives. This, however, might not be true in your case. Some parents leave their families and are never heard from again. Others are around so infrequently that they have abandoned their families in most respects. If this describes your situation, you will probably need the help of an attorney to get a divorce (if you’re legally married) and to obtain child support.
If you need help with day-to-day parenting, consider talking to one of the children’s grandparents, a favorite aunt or uncle, or a very close friend about having them help out. If it works, you’ll have adult help and your children will have the benefit of another adult’s influence.
If There Is Violence or Abuse in the Family
Domestic violence, child abuse, and child neglect are, unfortunately, a fact of life for many in the United States. For some, these events are unique to the period leading up to and during the separation or divorce. For others, a long history of violence, abuse, or neglect convinces one or both parents that the only solution is to separate or divorce.
Physical violence, threats of violence, sexual assault, and child abuse are illegal. Specific definitions of domestic violence vary from state to state. But federal law says it is illegal to injure—or threaten to injure—anyone related by blood or marriage, or with whom you are living and have an intimate relationship. This is true regardless of your cultural or religious heritage, citizenship status, or personal beliefs about discipline or the proper relationship between husbands and wives.
If your divorce, separation, or coparenting relationship includes acts or threats of domestic violence, emotional abuse, child abuse, child sexual abuse, or child neglect, protecting your and your children’s safety must be your first concern. This means getting whatever emotional, legal, or other help you need to understand your options. It also means planning for how you will stay safe while you develop a parenting agreement.
The time when one partner chooses to get help, leave an abusive relationship, or get a restraining order can be the most dangerous of all. This is because one partner might try to hurt or scare the other as a way to stop them from leaving or involving “outsiders” in their “family” or “private” matters.
Although each safety plan will be somewhat different, every one should consider:
• where all family members will live
• whether any family member’s whereabouts will be kept secret
• whether legal protection (such as civil protection or restraining orders) is necessary
• whether visits with a violent parent will be supervised, and
• how each affected person will get emotional support.
Situations involving violence or abuse usually call for outside help. (See Chapter 17 for more advice and resources.)
Most of the information in this book assumes that your family situation is conducive to negotiating and reaching a parenting agreement. But what about mediation in violent or potentially violent situations? Some professionals actively discourage victims of domestic violence from getting involved in mediation, family counseling, or other non-court proceedings where batterers and their victims meet face to face. This is because there can be significant power imbalances between people who have been involved in domestic violence. Advocates worry that a victim might be too intimidated by the batterer to effectively represent his or her own interests, or to protect their children’s interests.
Many experts worry that any type of negotiations regarding custody and visitation with someone who has committed domestic violence is inappropriate because it implies that somehow the violence is excusable. To address these concerns, some states (especially those that require mediation for custody and visitation disputes) allow victims of domestic violence either to skip mediation or to attend mediation sessions held in a separate place from where the batterer is seen. Many domestic violence victims feel better if they are accompanied by a domestic violence support person. Several states require a judge to deny custody or unsupervised visitation to a batterer unless the judge can say why visitation is safe and in the child’s best interests.
You can find more information on how to understand and handle domestic violence or emotional abuse issues in Chapters 4, 8, and 17. After you have found a way to address these safety issues, you can try to use this book to build a parenting agreement that can help you now and over time as the situation changes or improves. l