The Parenting Agreement

The vast majority of child custody cases reach settlement before the case needs to go to court — whether as a result of informal negotiations between the parents or other parties (and their attorneys) or through alternative dispute resolution processes like mediation or collaborative law. Below is a discussion of parenting agreements and court approval in child custody cases.

What Is a Parenting Agreement?

If the parents or other parties in a custody dispute (and their attorneys) negotiate and resolve all issues related to child custody and visitation, whether informally or through out-of-court processes like mediation or collaborative law, the couple’s decisions are finalized in detail in a written agreement. This agreement may be referred to as a "settlement agreement" in some states, while in other states the document may be called a "custody agreement" or "parenting agreement."

What Should the Parenting Agreement Include?

Keeping in mind that complexity and coverage of a parenting agreement will vary from case-to-case, these agreements typically cover areas such as:

  • Where the child will live (including living arrangements and visitation schedules);

  • If one parent will have primary physical custody, a detailed description of the non-custodial parent’s visitation rights (including schedules);

  • Who will be involved in major decisions related to the child’s upbringing and welfare (including health care, education, and religion);

  • With whom the child will spend major holidays, birthdays, and vacations (including schedules)

  • How contact with grandparents, family friends, and other third parties will be handled; and

  • How disputes and changes to the agreement will be handled.

Parenting Agreements and Court Approval

The parenting agreement is usually shown to a judge for final approval. If the custody agreement is part of the parents’ divorce, the agreement is filed in court in the county/district branch of state court where the divorce petition was filed. An informal court hearing may follow, during which the judge will ask some basic factual questions, and whether each party understands and chose to voluntarily sign the agreement. As long as the judge is satisfied that the agreement was fairly negotiated, and the terms do not appear to blatantly favor one spouse over the other, the agreement will almost always receive court approval.

In most states, the custody or parenting agreement then becomes a binding court order or "decree," dictating the parents’ (or other parties’) rights and obligations under the agreement. The parties to the agreement must adhere to it, or will face legal consequences. For example, if a parenting agreement has been converted into a court order, and the agreement is violated by a father who repeatedly fails to return his daughter on time after weekend visits, the mother may go to court to enforce the agreement and resolve the matter.