Not only avoid mistakes, but make sure your plan is as complete as possible. Cover all the bases. Most important in this process is to try to work together in preparing the parenting plan. Both parents will be much more pleased with the plan if they work on this together and not hand over this important process to the judge. The judge will be happy to decide these important issues for you. But, I am almost 100% certain, if you let the judge decide you will not be happy.
Thanks to the Oklahoma Family Law Blog and the Kansas Family Law Blog for a heads up on this great information from Anju Jessani of Divorce With Dignity Mediation Services in New Jersey.
Many divorced couples find themselves back in court for post-decree litigation simply because of poorly drafted parenting plans. Listed below are some of the most common mistakes and oversights related to parenting plans.
- The use of a non-specific parenting schedule (the 'liberal and frequent visitation' clause). The phrase 'liberal and frequent visitation' has no defined meaning in a court of law; the phrase means whatever the custodial parent says it means and is subject to change without notice.
- No provision for discussion regarding residential moves by the custodial parent. Move-away disputes are among the most hotly-contested post divorce issues brought to family court, and almost always an issue that a well-written parenting plan could help resolve (or prevent).
- No section covering access to and/or the sharing of medical and educational records. Although many States now have laws that address these issues, non-custodial parents still frequently encounter difficulty in obtaining records from local school systems and doctors.
- No provision for domestic and/or overseas travel or travel restrictions. This isn't a common source of trouble, but for couples who travel abroad frequently, who are from different countries or who have different citizenship statuses, this may be an important item to
- Not including guidelines for future medical care, such as orthodontia or other medical/surgical treatments, as well as how the costs for such care will be split.
- No provision for how the potential impact of loss of employment or disability will be handled (for either parent).
- No provision on methods to handle future disputes and the expenses related to the disputes. Mediation is often called for as a first step. Mediation acts as a 'buffer zone' for disputes in family court, 'screening' some out by resolving them before the court system
is actually engaged.
- No requirement for a periodic review of child support amount (upward or downward). Although some States do this automatically now, it is also a good idea to have this addressed in the parenting plan.
- Not including a provision for changing parenting time schedules as the child gets older. This can be a difficult provision to include, because no one knows what direction events, including children's choices and desires, will go. Nonetheless, there should be guidelines for managing potential schedule changes.
- No provision for or discussion of future educational choices, including college, and no clear determination of how the costs will be split.
The first point is far and away the biggest problem for both parents and courts. At the time of the divorce, the parents often state that they 'don't need a schedule' – they can work the schedule out and both parents are free to see the children 'anytime they want'. This, upon reflection, is completely ridiculous; if the parents could agree this well on everything, chances are they wouldn't be getting divorced in the first place. This spirit of cooperation lasts until the first argument, rarely if ever to return. Another problem with this arrangement is that it doesn't give the children much in the way of consistency or routine. Most children need the reassurance of knowing where, when, and with whom they are going to be.
Sometimes, the parenting schedule breaks down completely when one of the parties changes jobs, starts dating or remarries. You can minimize some of the resulting problems by creating the original
schedule with clear but flexible guidelines. For example, don't lock either party into rigid commitments in the parenting plan; make sure it allows for variation as needed. An important thing to keep in mind
is that once you have an initial schedule, you can always 'fine-tune' it later as circumstances change.
In short, NEVER agree to a parenting plan that doesn't spell out the visitation schedule in thorough detail (days, times, alternate plans, provisions for missed time, etc).
A question often heard in the discussion of parenting plans is 'How long should a parenting plan be?' The answer is 'Long enough to cover all (yes, all) the issues you're likely to encounter until your children
are grown.' Realistically, in sheer page count, this often works out to a parenting plan that is 20 to 30 pages in length, possibly more depending on circumstances. A 5-page parenting plan simply cannot cover everything that you're going to run across in the next 5 or 10 years.
Never commit to provisions that you cannot live up to just to get the divorce process over with. Some parents agree to pay their share of the cost of private school, without factoring the impact of things like child support, childcare, and second families on their budget. Also be aware of scheduling conflicts. For example, don't agree to see the children Tuesday evenings if you know that you have to work late most Tuesdays. Keep in mind that some aspect(s) of your life and schedule will change with time, so build some flexibility into the parenting plan when it comes to the visitation agreement.