Kelly Clarkson recently gave a podcast interview in which she touched on the emotional challenges of parenting after divorce. As part of her children’s bedtime routine, she asks whether they’re happy and what would make them happier. Sometimes, the children have responded with sadness because they wished their parents lived in the same house. This type of experience may be familiar to many divorced parents. While there’s no perfect solution, successful co-parenting starts with a strong parenting plan
A parenting plan sets out how parents will share custody and responsibility for their children after a divorce. It’s also called a custody and visitation agreement. Courts are moving toward language like “parenting plan” rather than custody agreement” and “parenting time” rather than “visitation.” The newer terms emphasize the focus on the child’s well-being, which should always be the priority in a parenting plan. Still, parents can expect to hear the terms used interchangeably. Depending on how well the parents get along, they can decide on a plan themselves or a judge might decide for them. Either way, the judge will issue an order making the plan legally binding. Courts will usually ask parents to attend mediation to help them develop a parenting plan before having the judge make the decision.
A parenting plan will define both legal custody, which decides who can make important decisions for the child, and physical custody, which decides where the child lives. Either type of custody can be shared or limited to one parent. If the child lives with one parent most of the time, often called the custodial parent, even if there’s shared physical custody. Hopefully, a good plan will include parenting time for both parents. However, if there are concerns about abuse or other risks to the child’s safety, a court might require either supervised visitation or no visitation at all. Supervised visitation is also an option when one parent hasn’t been part of the child’s life but wants to become more involved. Otherwise, there are two major ways to design a parenting plan.
This type of plan is based on a set schedule for parenting time as well as holidays and other special dates. The parents will decide on a regular schedule, like alternating weeks or weekend visits. They’ll also choose who will spend the holidays with the children. A parenting plan with a schedule is essential in a high-conflict divorce.
If the parents get along well enough to make adjustments on their own, an open-ended plan will give them more flexibility. Most children do best with a regular routine, so parents should have at least an informal schedule. However, if the parents are on the same page and want to make decisions like switching Christmas and Thanksgiving because of their extended family’s plans without involving the court, this can be a good option.
A good parenting plan puts the children’s well-being first. It needs to be as specific as possible, but the parents, keep in mind emergencies and other unexpected events will happen. Parents who share legal custody will need to decide which decisions they want to make together and when one person can make decisions on their own outside of an emergency. This discussion should cover issues like where the child goes to school, whether they’re involved in religious activities, physical and mental healthcare, extracurricular activities, and travel.
Sharing physical custody doesn’t mean children need to spend exactly the same amount of time with each parent. The best schedule will depend on the children’s ages, the parents’ work hours, the children’s routines and activities, and how far apart the parents live. For example, babies and toddlers won’t understand why they’re being moved between homes, so a good schedule usually means the child spends most of their time with their primary caregiver while the other parent visits several times a week for a few hours. Longer visits might be better for older children.
It’s also important for parents to decide how dropping off the children will work. They may be comfortable having one parent drive the children to the other parent’s house, or they may want to meet in a public location. This will depend on the level of conflict. Planning out drop-offs ahead of time can reduce arguments.
In addition to the regular routine, the parenting plan needs to include holidays, birthdays, and other special celebrations. There are several approaches catering to everyone’s needs. Parents might alternate important holidays, with one parent spending the day with the children in even years and the other in odd years. If they live close to one another, the children might spend part of the day with each parent. If a certain holiday is especially important to one parent, they might always have the holiday in exchange for a different one. Parents should consider their children’s preferences along with their traditions and priorities when splitting up holidays.
Coming up with a successful co-parenting plan is difficult. The California court system offers several resources that cover making a plan, dealing with difficult emotions, and enforcing the plan if the other parent doesn’t cooperate. They include:
Co-parenting after a divorce is complex. Parents should discuss their situation with an experienced divorce attorney to help them get the best outcome possible for their co-parenting plan. Call 619-299-9780 to schedule a free telephone consultation or contact a San Diego family law specialist here.
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