No two families alike, especially no two divorcing families. So parenting plans will differ, depending on the size of the family, religious affiliation, professional status of parents, income, educational needs and location, just to name a few. The first step to creating the plan is simply sitting down together and talking. If parents were unable to open the lines of communication during marriage, this might be an even harder task now. But both sides must remember that the children’s needs and best interests are the priority and they come first in the parenting plan. With that in mind, below are some essential issues that every plan should have, along with some extra ideas that families might want to consider for their plan.
A schedule for the children
This is a schedule for the children for school vacations, national and religious holidays and day-to-day living. In the ideal, it looks towards the future, so schedules can be created on a yearly basis, with holidays and visitation days switching each year (ie Mom has the children for Christmas in odd years and Dad has them for summer holidays in even years).
A good plan should determine the authority and responsibilities of each parent. The parenting plan should determine who makes which decisions. Some parents decide that when the children are with a parent, that parent makes day to day decisions. For young children, this might include what they eat, how often they bathe, how homework is done and when they go to sleep. For older children decision-making will involve issues of computer and cell phone use, dating, curfews, car use and more.
The plan should also consider long-term, “bigger” decisions and give authority to either one or both parents on matters like education, health, extracurricular activities and religious upbringing. The parents might agree that regardless of how decision-making is divided up, either parent is allowed to make emergency decisions regarding the children’s health or safety.
Taking care of the children
The parenting plan should take into account specific parenting responsibilities. Sometimes issues come up because both parents want to be involved (for example, meeting the child’s teacher) and sometimes neither parent is able to take responsibility (for example, who stays home when a child is sick). What about medical and dental appointments, or transporting the children between homes? Whether there is one child or four, these questions come up regularly. Some plans state that the parent in charge that day is responsible for these tasks. Other plans use the “divide and conquer” method, giving dad all medical and dental tasks, say, while mom deals with all educational responsibilities.
A Method for Communicating and Sharing Information
Despite all the effort, parents will need to communicate with each other and share information. Online calendars and schedules that can be shared and updated are a great method for keeping each other informed of changes. Emailing and text messages enable fast communication when a quick decision needs to be made. The plan should detail the method or methods chosen and the expectation that parents will make every effort to keep each other in the loop.
Laying out the financial commitments and rights of each parent is an important part of the plan. If one parent is paying child support, the plan should explain what this includes. The plan should also determine who covers additional expenses for the children like summer camp, public transportation, special activities and pocket money. Are both parents paying into a college or savings fund for each child? How much should each parent put aside? Every family is different so parents should sit down and work through as many of the expenses they currently have or foresee having in the future.
A Way to Manage Disagreements
No plan is perfect and sometimes disagreements arise. Parents need to have a method in place for working through these disagreements. The plan can require parents to first try working it out on their own or turning to mediation. When parents can’t resolve their differences, arbitration may be required. These are preferred alternatives to court because they allow each parent to be heard and help the parents hand-craft a solution that satisfies everyone. Generally, court should be the last resort.
Evaluating and Changing the Plan
Parents and children change over time. Sometimes it will be necessary to make changes to the parenting plan. What happens when one parent needs to relocate? What happens when the children get a bit older and want to make changes to the plan? The plan should have a system for dealing with the changing needs of the family members. Some plans require an evaluation every year. Others might require a family discussion to get input from everyone involved. Whatever the approach, it should be described in the parenting plan and followed. The new plan can also be submitted to the court for orders.
An experienced family lawyer can help families create a plan that’s appropriate for them. Below are some suggested templates for a parenting plan.