When childless couples divorce, they have one particular luxury that divorcing parents don’t have: they don’t have to deal with each other ever again! But parents who wish to play meaningful roles in their children’s lives have to continue interacting regularly, and they have to do it well. It should be no surprise that if you do not have a well-crafted parenting plan, these interactions can be constant sources of conflict, tension, and misunderstanding.
What is a Parenting Plan?
A parenting plan or custody agreement is a document that is negotiated and signed by the parties, addressing both the day-to-day and big picture issues involved in raising a child, including decisions regarding the child’s health, education, and welfare.
Drafted by a child custody attorney, this document reduces to writing how the parents will coordinate their schedules, share decision-making responsibilities, and address specific parenting issues. A clear agreement reduces misunderstandings and prevents future disagreements and acrimony between divorced parents. It also holds both parties accountable to abide by child custody laws.
The parenting plan must be tailored to the unique circumstances of each couple. Many couples find that researching parenting plan examples is a useful starting point, however, it should be noted that there is no “one size fits all agreement” in New York state or elsewhere. Every parenting agreement will vary depending on the particular facts of a case and the needs of the parties and their children.
What Are the Main Types of Child Custody?
In its most basic form, custody can be broken down into two broad types:
- Physical or residential custody. Residential custody, as the term suggests, refers to where the children will live. Also referred to as parenting time or access time, this refers to the amount of time each parent is permitted to spend with the children. This category can further be broken down into:
- Sole custody, in which the children primarily reside with one parent. The other non-custodial parent may have parenting time, visitation, or access time with the children.
- Joint residential custody, in which the children split their time between the parents.
- Decision-making. This addresses choices regarding the children’s health, education, religion, and other aspects. These decisions can be based:
- Jointly, wherein all major decisions are made collectively by both parents.
- On spheres of influence, wherein each parent is assigned specific areas with final decision-making authority in that area.
- Sole custody can be granted when one of the parties is dysfunctional, lacks adequate parenting skills, or is suffering from some infirmity so it would be improvident to allow him/her to participate in making decisions for their children.
- As hybrid cases wherein the parents are deadlocked and unable to make joint decisions. The decision-making is effectively given to an “expert” such as a parent-coordinator, educational consultant, or pediatrician, to cast the deciding vote.
The different components involved in decision-making bring to mind a recent case that I found of interest and merit. Having taken place in New York state, the case sheds a light on the relevant legal issues surrounding child custody and parenting plans, with candid impressions by Justice Cooper.
Taking the above elements into account, the parenting plan should also encompass the key areas outlined below.
Parenting Plans Should Address 6 Key Issues:
- Parenting time. The parenting plan should provide specific details regarding how and when each parent will spend time with the child. It should identify the days and weeks the child is allocated with each parent, as well as where and what time the child is to be dropped off and picked up.
The custody agreement should also address the parenting time and schedule for:
- Summer, Winter, and Spring breaks
- All holidays, including, Christmas, Thanksgiving,
- The children’s and parent’s birthdays, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and other special occasions
- Vacations with one of the parents
- Unexpected circumstances and temporary changes to the schedule
A parenting plan will typically outline that parents will alternate holidays. The schedule is reversed the next year, i.e., for one year Spouse A may have child custody on the 4th of July, and Spouse B may have the child for Memorial Day and Labor Day. The next year, the holidays will be reversed.
Additionally, most parenting plan examples allow each parent to spend some time with the child on their birthday every year.
The plan should specifically identify each holiday that matters to the parents, from secular holidays like Memorial Day or New Year’s Day to religious ones such as Easter or Passover. The plan should also specify specific beginning and end times for visitation on each holiday to avoid any confusion.
Since children’s schedules are dramatically different in the summer than they are during the school year, parents should make specific arrangements for how parenting time will be allocated during those three months.
As a child custody attorney, I strongly advise all parents to have open and clear communication at all times. A solid parenting plan includes informing the other parent if and when they have plans to take their children away during their allotted vacation time, and providing contact information in case of emergency. If a parent has a concern about a particular trip planned by the other parent, they should make those concerns known. If no agreement can be reached, they should contact their divorce or child custody attorney to explore how or if they can intervene.
- Decision-making. Every day involves making decisions, both large and small, that affect your child. It’s easy to let emotions and past grievances cloud judgment. To avoid misunderstandings, the parenting plan needs to delineate who has the authority to make decisions on designated subjects. It should specify whether such choices can be made unilaterally or only with consultation and agreement between both parents.
Day-to-day decisions will usually be made by the parent who is caring for the child on any given day. As for major decisions, many parenting plan examples dictate that one party can have the authority to make such decisions (sole custody) or the parents can share the decision-making responsibility for such issues (joint custody). Major decisions include matters such as:
- Non-emergency healthcare
- Extra-curricular activities and camps
- Information sharing. Each parent has the right to know what is going on with their child and the parenting plan should reflect that. The plan should stipulate arrangements for sharing important information such as:
- Grades, test scores, and educational progress
- Health issues and concerns
- Personal information such as cell phone numbers, medical records, or governmental records
- Emergency contact information
- Parental relocation. While New York child custody laws have rules and limits regarding parental relocation, the plan should specifically address these issues to avoid court involvement if one parent needs to move for work or personal reasons.
- Communication. The parenting plan should set rules as to how and when a parent can communicate with the child when they are in the other parent’s custody, such as via Skype, email, texting, etc.).
- Mutual respect. As a child custody attorney, I stress the importance of mutual respect. One parent bad-mouthing the other in front of their child or trying to sabotage the relationship between the child and their former spouse is not only counterproductive but destructive to all of the relationships involved. The parties should agree that they will refrain from negative comments and conduct toward each other for the sake of the children–as well as their own peace of mind.
I hope that my blog entry on drafting a solid parenting plan was useful. If you have questions or concerns regarding your parenting plan, child custody, or any other matters relating to divorce, please call Clement Law at (212) 683-9551 or fill out our contact form to arrange for a consultation. We look forward to assisting you.