Parenting Agreements

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

If you’re going through a divorce and you have children, there’s no doubt that you’re overwhelmed with emotions and tasks. One of the most critical items on your to-do list must be to work with your spouse to create a parenting agreement that works for your family.

Regardless of how you feel about each other, parents must communicate. After all, you’re going to be involved in each other’s lives for at least 18 years, and frankly, if you can’t bridge your communication gap, you’ve got a long way to go before you reach peace after the divorce. A parenting plan is a perfect way to negotiate the best arrangement for your family after your divorce. But, where do you start?

What Is a Parenting Agreement?

A parenting agreement (or parenting plan) is a written document that you and your ex-spouse create together to outline how you will handle the care of your children after your divorce. Creating an agreement helps both parents understand what the other expects of them and can alleviate conflict that often comes with separation.

Stability is essential for every child, and divorce has the power to upset even the most ridged schedule. A detailed parenting agreement can offset some of the negative effects of divorce by providing children with a predictable visitation schedule, thereby avoiding the constant question of “where will I be going today?”

You may have heard parenting plans also called custody agreements, co-parenting agreements, or a parenting time arrangement. No matter what you call it, you should consider creating one, even if your state doesn’t require it during the divorce.

What Should My Parenting Agreement Include?

Each state has its requirements for a parenting plan, and because every family is different, no parenting plan is the same. Most importantly, you must include details on how you will handle the following:

  • child custody
  • visitation for the noncustodial parent and the child
  • pick-up and drop-off transportation
  • medical care
  • education requirements
  • religious upbringing
  • holidays, and
  • child support and other financial issues.

Child Custody

There’s no doubt that custody is one of the most contentious and hot-button issues in divorces with children. But, if you can set aside your emotions about each other and put the children first, custody shouldn’t be too difficult. It’s most important to determine who will have physical custody of the children, meaning where the child will live most of the time and who will provide day-to-day care. If you can’t decide who should have physical custody, the court will decide for you using your state’s best interest factors. Keep in mind, the judge doesn’t know you or your family as you do, so it’s always best if both parents can work together to formulate the best plan for the children.

Visitation

Once you determine who will have physical custody, you’ll need to create a parenting time (or visitation) schedule for the non-custodial parent. In most cases, children will benefit from having a regular and continuous relationship with both parents, so if only the child lives primarily with one parent (the custodial parent), you must create a schedule that allows visitation between the child and the noncustodial parent.

Typically, the child will visit the noncustodial parent on weekends, extended vacations from school (like summer and spring break) and will split holidays between both parents. The children are used to seeing both parents on a regular basis, so it’s essential to create a schedule that will minimize the disruption to the children after divorce. Your visitation agreement should also clearly lay out which parent is responsible for transportation during parenting time.

Legal Custody

In most states, the court will award both parents joint legal custody of the children. Legal custody will allow both parents to have an opinion on major decisions that impact your child’s life, including decisions about medical care, religious upbringing, and education. Your parenting agreement should explain whether legal custody is shared or sole (awarded to one parent) and what will happen in the event of a disagreement.

Child Support

There’s no doubt that child support can be a touchy subject. That said, the law is clear that your children are entitled to financial support from both parents, regardless of custody. Your parenting agreement should include details on which parent will pay child support and how much. You can ask your attorney to determine your child support obligation by inputting your information (and your ex-spouse’s income) into your state’s child support formula.

Do I Need an Attorney?

No, not necessarily. You can develop a parenting agreement with your spouse, and once you put the terms in writing, you can submit it to the court. Or, if you can’t resolve all the issues on your own, you can participate in mediation, which is where a neutral third-party will help you solve your conflicts in a confidential environment. If you aren’t sure that mediation is for you, and you can’t negotiate an agreement on your own, it would be best for each of you to hire an attorney.

Keep in mind, even if you and your spouse agree on all the terms in your agreement, it would be smart for each of you to have an attorney review it before you sign.

What Steps Should I Take to Create a Parenting Agreement?

The first step to developing your parenting plan is to open the lines of communication between you and your ex-spouse. You’re not going to get anywhere if neither of you is willing to negotiate and sacrifice for your child’s benefit. Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Traveling between two homes isn’t ideal, nor is it easy for children, especially those who are school-aged. Before you decide how you’ll handle custody and visitation, think of the best way to ensure your children get what they need from both parents.

If you hire an attorney, you should be honest about what you want and what you’re willing to sacrifice for your children. Be sure to provide any documents, including pay stubs, tax returns, and work schedules to your attorney promptly.

If you participate in mediation, you should attend the session with an open mind, but more importantly, you should come prepared with your work and social schedule, your child’s schedule, and your ideal parenting plan arrangement. You’ll also need to provide any financial documents that the mediator requests.

Once you and your spouse agree on the terms of your parenting plan, you’ll need to present a signed copy to the court. Although most courts believe that parents know best, you’ll still need to get the judge’s signature for the agreement to become a valid, court order.

Be Sure Not to Violate the Court Order

Parenting agreements are legally-binding documents once the judge signs it, which means if you violate any provision, you’ll be subject to court fines or other penalties. If your arrangement no longer works for you, or you need to change the terms, you’ll need to follow your state’s procedure for modifying a court order.

If you have questions about creating a parenting agreement, you should speak to a family law attorney in your area.

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