While divorce offers a definitive conclusion to a problematic marriage, parenthood survives even the most acrimonious of divorces. No relationship is fully settled when children are involved because each parent shares an interest in the continuing well-being of a child, and is entitled to equally participate in that evolving relationship. This is where a parenting plan comes in.
A “parenting plan” is a document that spells out the specific details of how the parents will share parenting rights and responsibilities after a divorce or separation. The plan must address whether legal and physical custody will be shared jointly or divided in some other manner. How to make that determination depends on what’s in the best interest of the child.
The presumption in California law is that it is in the best interests of a child for both parents to make decisions in consultation. Some divorces may make close cooperation trying; but if parents can’t create a plan for the future, it’s left to a judge to decide. Parents unhappy with a court’s decision could be faced with continued litigation that is likely to be combative and expensive.
When parents meet and confer, they can work out a satisfying parenting plan that fully addresses their unique circumstances while ensuring frequent access to their children. Factors to consider when developing a plan include the age and health of the child, emotional and educational needs, health, safety, and also parental ability.
A parenting plan protects the child while ensuring that parents not only share access and decision-making but also a responsibility. Joint custody – physical and legal – requires that both parents participate equally to protect the health, education, and welfare of their children. A further benefit of a detailed parenting plan is that there is little left to debate or argument in its use. A plan that says the child will be with each parent as per mutual agreement” is certainly better than no plan at all, but a plan that is dependent upon the cooperation and mutual agreement of recently divorced parents is a plan that will most likely someday require judicial intervention because inevitably there will be disagreement between the parents at some point or another, and that disagreement if the parties become intractable, will likely need a judicial officer’s input to provide clarity. So, why not plan for that situation and provide clarity in advance, in the form of a detailed parenting plan.
One example of a detailed provision in a parenting plan might provide a specific schedule for time with the children along the lines of “[t]he children will be in the care of Father every Monday from 3:00 pm or pick up from school, to the following Wednesday at 8:00 am or drop off at school …” and so on. By this wording, it is clear who has the children, when they have the children, and when they are to return the children. Additional provisions include the location of the exchanges and also details regarding the weekends, holidays and special days, and vacation time. When a plan is detailed like this there is also the added benefit of a plan that is capable of being enforced by law enforcement and the courts, which is what is needed if the dynamic between the parents becomes argumentative and confrontational.
A cooperative atmosphere between parents will allow children more freedom to play a role in custody determinations. Rather than expecting a child to pick sides, a common-sense parenting plan prioritizes the relationship between a child and each parent. Such a plan also minimizes the possibilities of continuing conflict, provides a structure that is predictable and stable, and lets everyone, especially the children, have a clear understanding of what to expect in this timeshare arrangement, and that is better for everyone involved.
While child custody may be one of the most complex issues to address during a divorce, there’s no reason why cooperative co-parenting can’t secure a plan that will have a healthy and empowering outcome for the children involved. There are many resources on the internet to research if you want to learn more about parenting plans, and you can also discuss this with an experienced family law attorney who can help you fashion a parenting plan that is right for your children.