Parenting Plans, entered as part of the final orders in a divorce, layout the custody and visitation arrangements between parents and children. The plan acts as a co-parenting blueprint by outlining the rights and responsibilities each parent has toward a child. Regardless of how custody is shared, one person will usually be designated as the primary or custodial parent. The child will be required to reside with that parent except for specific times when the child will live with the non-custodial parent.
Courts seek to encourage frequent and regular interaction between children and both parents unless a reason, such as a history of domestic violence, exists to limit contact. Ideally, the parents should mutually work to craft the plan rather than delegate the task to the court. Creativity in structuring the custody and visitation details can provide positive results for both children and parents.
The traditional schedule for school-age children has the child living with the primary parent most of the time with the child residing at the other parent’s home every other weekend from Friday evening to Sunday evening. Holidays are rotated each year. Winter and spring breaks from school may be split or alternated. The child may live with the non-custodial parent for a couple of weeks to half of the summer vacation. This time-worn schedule creates the weekend parent, a status often loathed by the non-custodial parent. However, a few changes can make a big difference.
Begin by extending weekend visitation time to start after school on Friday and extend it to Monday morning. This helps eliminate Sunday night stress which is compounded by both preparing for school and switching homes. The parent who has the child Monday will provide transportation to school. Add a mid-week visit for the non-custodial parent. The visit may be just a few hours in the evening or may last overnight with the parent once again getting the child to school.
When two children are involved, parents might use the mid-week visit to focus special attention on each child. Each parent would take one child for a special Wednesday evening activity. The following week each parent would take the other child. This helps ensure each child gets important one-on-one time with both parents.
Creativity is particularly required when one parent has non-traditional weekends or works swing or graveyard shifts. If the parent gets Tuesday and Wednesday off rather than the weekend, the plan should accommodate the schedule. If a parent gets off work at 11 p.m. Friday, it makes more sense to begin visitation Saturday morning and end it Monday morning.
A first right of refusal provision can prove beneficial. If a parent who has custody of the child must be away from home for several hours or even overnight for work, that parent would be required to first ask the other parent to provide care for the child before resorting to another family member or babysitter.
Summer vacation can be maximized for each parent by splitting it equally. The primary parent may choose the first half of summer in even years and have the last half in odd years. During the extended period when the child resides with either parent, the other parent will get the weekend and mid-week visits. Plan provisions should also specify that the child shall be with the parent for his or her formal vacation from work. This may require parents to cooperate and reschedule custodial weeks.
Joint Custody Variations
Joint physical custody typically means that children live with each parent for an equal amount of time year-round. Parents seeking joint custody out of a desire to have equal time with their child, and not as a ploy to reduce child support payments, have to honestly assess whether circumstances support such an arrangement. In theory, the arrangement may sound fair and good for the children. In practice, it may prove difficult to achieve.
The practicality for a child to frequently alternate between residences depends on a variety of factors. These include the proximity of the parents’ homes to each other and to the child’s school. The ideal situation arises if homes are within walking distance of each other. Parents should also consider the child’s age, needs, and temperament. Parents must have the ability to be flexible and cooperative. Flexibility requires parents to be set aside any lasting hostility they may feel towards each other to do what is in the best interest of their children.
Parental work schedules can quickly make joint custody plans unfeasible. If a parent frequently travels or works late, the benefits of joint custody are minimized. Both parents should have jobs which allow them to be home most evenings. Similarly, as children become more involved in school and social activities, changes to the residential schedule may be required on short notice.
Parents must ensure there is an adequate amount of clothes and school supplies at each residence including any technological equipment required to complete schoolwork. Parents must be able to achieve consistency in rules and discipline so as not to undermine the authority of the other parent. This is important in any shared parenting arrangement but, perhaps, even more so when custody is split evenly. Behavior expectations and consequences for the child should be the same regardless of the residence.
If some form of joint physical custody appears practical, a variety of approaches can be tried. The child may simply alternate residences on a weekly basis. To provide greater stability, the switch might take place every two weeks. Alternatively, each week could be split with the child at one home three days a week and at the other home four days, then reverse the pattern the following week. A variation of the plan would split the weekdays so one parent has two days and the other gets three days each week while weekends are alternated.
Custody and parenting plans can be as creative as the parents who design them. Success depends on the willingness of parents to commit to the plan, to be cooperative and flexible and to support their children. Achieving success maximizes the involvement of both parents in their children’s lives.
Peter Van Aulen has been a divorce attorney for over 24 years. His law practice is devoted totally to family and divorce law. If you have any questions concerning divorce, child custody and parenting plans contact him at (201) 845-7400 for a free initial consultation.