If you have kids under 18 years old, you can come up with a plan for who is taking care of them on which days, etc. You may have already worked out a schedule with your spouse, but some people also find it reassuring to also list the specifics of your schedule in your divorce forms. To do this, you’ll need to create a “parenting plan” which we’ll help you to do.
In this article:
- What is a parenting plan?
- Creating a parenting plan
- Other considerations
- Suggested rules for parents
- Communication: email, text, phone
A parenting plan is when both parents have an agreement to share time with their kid(s) while living in 2 separate households. What does this look like? Well, suppose you have a son named “Johnny,” a parenting plan might specify that Johnny will be with his mom on 1st & 3rd weekend and with his dad on 2nd/ 4th weekend. You can make your parenting plan as basic or as detailed as you’d like. It’s up to you.
A basic plan involves a weekly/monthly schedule that would be flexible and would allow parents to work with each other on a daily basis. This may work for parents who have a rotating work schedule that changes every few weeks; or parents who have unpredictability such as travel for work, need to work odd hours; etc. This is most effective if you and your STBX are on good terms and able to compromise and communicate effectively. If you have difficulty co-parenting, it may be better to develop a more comprehensive plan to avoid disagreements.
A more comprehensive plan might involve: a regular schedule when the kids are in school (school calendar is usually helpful); how and where exchanges will occur; holiday schedules; travel plans; right of first refusal, etc. Here is where you can deal with the summer breakdown, summer camps, travel, vacation, etc.
Should you have a more comprehensive plan? A comprehensive plan is a good idea for these practical reasons:
- To provide a blueprint for how you’re each spending time with your kids, so that you can refer to it when/if there is any confusion down the road.
- To provide stability and consistency to your kids
- To know what to expect on any given weekday/ weekend in your schedule
- To plan for vacations/ holidays
- To allow both the homes to have some continuity with flexibility
The main idea is that your child(ren) is/are able to have “frequent and continuing contact” with both parents. What Judges will want to see is that both parents support continuing contact of the kids with the other parent. Child development specialists say that this is critical for kids as it helps them maintain a semblance of normalcy as well as supports the notion of both parents understanding the value of the other parent in the kid's life post divorce.
Most parenting plans are categorized under 2 main concepts: Custody & Visitation (schedule).
Custody is divided into Legal and Physical custody:
Legal custody relates to all the decisions that you both make as parents, such as decisions about education, religion, medical care, dental care etc. to name a few major ones. Joint Legal Custody is favored by Judges and is most common. If you have Joint Legal Custody you will make decisions together that are in your kid’s “best interest”. The term “best interest” has a broad scope, but essentially it comes down to the health, safety, happiness and welfare of the kid and looks at which parent is more likely to encourage the child frequent and continuing contact with the parent.
Physical custody is about where your kids are living and who they live with. Joint Physical Custody is not as common as getting Joint Legal Custody, because people’s living situations vary. Joint physical does not necessarily mean you have equal time (“50/50”) but it means that your kid is living in both your homes at separate times as agreed by parents. Sole physical custody means that your kid is mostly living with one parent, but can still have regular contact (“visitation”) with the other parent.
There are a few important factors to consider with joint legal and physical custody:
- The law strongly favors children having frequent and continuing contact with both parents; Judges tend to favor joint legal & physical custody
- It’s very important for parents to have an open dialogue with each other when it comes to the kids.
- Judges generally think that it’s better to have both parents involved in making important decisions that impact your kids well being.
Tips on creating your schedule: You should have all of the information that you need to get started, but if you want some more guidance then we have some tips for you below:
- What kind of schedule do you want to put in place for your child(ren)? Deciding upon an appropriate schedule for your child(ren) is based on the age of your child(ren) and a history of your parenting involvement.
- You don’t need to have an exact schedule in place, but it is highly recommended by parenting counselors to be as clear and as specific as possible since it provides all of you with consistency and stability (which is much needed through the transition phase of separation/ divorce). It also gives you both a framework to fall back on if there is any confusion or miscommunication later on.
All the ideas presented below are general thoughts/guidelines/suggestions for parents to consider. There is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for kids, and they do not all develop at the same rate. Kids are resilient, smart, emotionally dependent on parents providing a safety net at any age and any decision you take as a parent should be for their overall well being.
- Children under 5: This is a critical time for both parents to establish and development deep positive attachments with the child. For Kids under 2 it’s important for them to have everyday or every other day interaction with parents, they can also handle more transitions between both the homes, and research shows that parents who involve themselves in a variety of functional aspects such as feeding, bathing, sleeping, pickup and drop off at daycare etc. not only provide a sense of security but also create a positive bond with the child.
- For kids between 2-3 years-old, most studies encourage parents to allow for 2 consecutive nights with each parent without stress as they are able to tolerate longer periods of separation; exceptions are planned vacations, but kids this age generally cannot tolerate more than 7 days of vacation away from the other parent. It is recommended to schedule several vacations and not a lengthy one. Preschoolers can generally tolerate extended weekends better than toddlers, but then again, all of this will only work if parents communicate with each other on a daily basis and are informed as to your kid’s daily emotional and physical well being.
- Children over 5: Kids this age have an increased cognitive, social, emotional, and time-keeping abilities. They become more independent, form opinions, know the difference between right and wrong, and can negotiate as well as understand different viewpoints. In terms of coping with time apart from either parent, evidence-based research says that kids this age can generally tolerate lengthier separations (such as 3-4 days) and can also adjust to vacations between 7-10 days.
- Teenagers: Teenagers usually tend to have more of say in how they want to spend their days and time in each parent’s home. It’s important for parents to listen to their voices, but also help them understand that parents get to make the final decision. Teenagers tend to ask questions (a lot) about the divorce process as they feel that they want to have a say on decisions that impact their time. Teens can generally tolerate 5 – 7 days stretch of time away from either parent, and most kids this age prefer to not have many transitions between 2 homes. Their preference for things to do weekday evenings or weekends (when not drowning in homework) may entirely be focused on their school, friends and extracurricular activities. And parents can finally take 2-3 week vacations and not worry about lengthy separations etc.
It’s important for parents to have a specific plan in regards to picking up and dropping off kids. Kids need to know who is going to be responsible for getting them to and from school on a day-to-day basis to provide some stability during this transition.
Exchanges are the worst time for parents to have disagreements, as your kid is with you. If you think you may have a conflict or argument with your STBX, have exchanges at the school/day care/after-care or your kids extra curricular activities such as sports, dance, music lesson classes to minimize the amount of time you interact (or argue) with your STBX in your kid’s presence.
If you don’t anticipate such difficult encounters, then meeting during exchanges is a great modeling opportunity for your kids to see how well both of you are getting along post divorce/separation.
Under the right of first refusal, if the parent who has custody of the kid has to be somewhere for a few hours and needs someone to watch the child(ren); he or she will call the other parent and ask for help with taking care of the kid for some time before calling friends, family, or babysitters. This isn’t a part of all parenting plans, but if it works for you it can be a good way of giving the children more time to spend with the other parent. This only works if the parents do not use this information in the future as a reason to try to reduce timeshare for the other parent (it has happened before in our experience!).
- Who’s responsible for homework/ project work etc?
- Who will sign off on permission slips for field trips and special school events? (Both parents should email the teacher to ensure that they are receiving direct communication from the school.)
- What are the rules around electronics in both homes? Kids tend to play one parent against another if the rules are too strict or too relaxed either home.
- Extra-curricular activities: If parents share joint legal custody, then decisions have to be made together about sign up’s for dance, soccer, karate, music etc.
Holidays are generally split equally between both parents and alternated with the years. It’s always good to prepare your holiday schedule early. Parents who put this off tend to realize that they should have put more thought into it. Since there’s usually no work or school, holidays are a great time to spend with your children. They also create lifelong memories for kids that you’ll want them to have when they look back on their childhood. Some parents also having long-standing traditions of meeting family or friends on certain holidays, or taking a week every year to go to a cabin or going skiing, and you want to make sure that those traditions are part of your parenting plan.
Birthdays: Generally, parents tend to celebrate kids’ birthdays on their weekends. But for some parents it’s important to spend time with the kid on the actual day; if this is the case, you want to plan ahead for it as the actual day changes every year. Most professionals would suggest that the non-custodial parent can choose to spend time with the kid after school pickup and drop off after dinner. If it falls on a weekend, then parents can both spend time with the kid for a few hours each and have a party with his or her friends on weekends. However you decide to handle it, make sure you have a plan in place with the other parent before you discuss it with your child: the focus should be on them, and they shouldn’t be worrying about a conflict between their parents that may cause a change of plans.
Spring/Ski/Summer/Winter break: It’s important for parents to figure out the long vacation breaks so you can make the most of your time. For the week-long breaks, parents can alternate so they can both have that extra time with the kids. But if parents are unable to take time off, then you want to make sure that you have a plan for care when you are at work (camps, family, other parent etc.)
Travel restrictions: Most parents don’t realize until it’s too late that he or she does not have consent from the other parent to travel out of State or country. It’s important to have this as part of your agreement if you have travel plans (even if it’s distant future) as consulates, embassies, and airports are getting more strict about having written consent prior to travelling.
Usually the parenting agreement will say that the travelling parent needs to inform the other parent of travel plans 15-30 days prior for domestic travel and 30-60 days for international travel. The travelling parent should also ensure that travel is done on his/her custodial time. If it falls on the other parent’s time, then consent should be obtained prior to making any concrete travel plans. The travelling parent should also provide travel itinerary, as well as contact info for the kid during travel.
There are some other strict guidelines if a parent is concerned that the other parent may abduct the child if they take them out of country. If this is the case, parents can go into more complicated agreements which can include with posting a bond and informing the US embassy in the country where the children will be travelling.
- No disparaging remarks of either parent in front of the kids.
- No excessive drinking, smoking, or drug use around minors
- Do not use kids to pass information to the other parent about anything.
- Do not put the other parent on the spot by asking him/her about something that the kids want such as new electronic, going on a trip with friends etc.
Parents agree to strictly follow the parenting plan with the hope that both of you can be a little flexible and rely on each other to help with any minor hiccups in scheduling etc.
Email: The expectation is other parent gets back within 24 hours. If it’s urgent regarding scheduling a doctor’s appointment etc. then it should be stated in the email so the other parent can get back in a timely manner.
Text: Text messaging can be appropriate for immediate communication or to relay late pick up or drop off, etc., but it may not be an appropriate way of discussing larger issues with the other parent.
Phone: Call for communicating any emergencies and leave detailed voicemail if the other parent does not pick up the phone.
Hopefully this information will be enough to guide you and your STBX in working out a parenting plan that works for both of you and for your children. However, if you and your STBX find that you're having disagreements over parenting issues, there are other resources available to you, including hiring a professional co-parenting mediator or counselor to help you come to an agreement. If you do come to a roadblock, we can help you connect with professionals to help you work through these issues.