Whether you are establishing a parenting plan for the first time or modifying an old parenting plan, establishing a detailed parenting plan will make a difference in your future co-parenting relationship and the lives of your children. Oftentimes, parents starting the process of going through a divorce or separation believe a parenting plan simply lays out when each parent has the children. While that is a solid starting point, the conversation should not stop there.
While you and your co-parent may communicate well now, parenting plans should be structured in a way that prepares for future disagreements. A parenting plan should be clear and detailed, as well as contemplate any foreseeable points of contention between the parties because this can assist the parties with avoiding conflict in the future. Doing so will hopefully keep everyone out of court.
What is a Parenting Plan? Generally, a parenting plan includes information, such as the actual parenting schedule (i.e. which days of the week the children are with which parent), a holiday schedule, and methods for making decisions about the children. Most parenting plans also include terms regarding the financial aspects of parenting, including child support and the division of uninsured medical and extracurricular expenses. After a parenting plan is signed by the parents and filed with the Court, it becomes a court order. This means that the terms of the parenting plan are enforceable by law.
The risks of having a vague parenting plan are vast. Oftentimes, parents who are able to communicate well with each other try to build flexibility into a parenting plan. Flexibility is not enforceable. By way of example, if you have a parenting plan that does not name a specific time by which a parent is supposed to drop a child off, your schedule not only lacks predictability, but it is difficult to enforce.
If you and the other parent decide that the parenting time exchange should be at 5:00 p.m., and the other parent fails to show up until 7:30 p.m., they are not in violation of any order of the court. Likewise, if your parenting plan states the proportion of reimbursement for uninsured medical expenses but does not designate the “when” or the “how” of the reimbursement, you may go without being reimbursed indefinitely. Conversely, one parent may “bank” expenses and you may end up owing the parent thousands of dollars without much notice. This type of lack of detail creates problems, even in the best of divorces with minimal conflict. Your exposure to future litigation is far greater, when your parenting plan lacks specificity.
A detailed parenting plan, on the other hand, limits your risk of future conflict and litigation and gives you something to fall back on, should your co-parenting relationship change in the future. While it may seem tedious and unpleasant to discuss the time of the exchange on Christmas eve, down to the minute, you will be grateful for the security and predictability that it provides you, moving forward. Of course, parents who are able to communicate well can always agree to change the exchange time or other details of the parenting plan. However, the parenting plan can serve as a great default, in case the parents cannot agree. That way, rather than there being a conflict between the parties that has to be resolved by a judge, the parents can just say “let’s stick with the terms of the parenting plan” and move on to focusing on their children.
A good parenting plan will include specifics as to the time of exchanges for regular parenting time and holidays, a specific method of reimbursing one another for expenses incurred on behalf of your children, times, frequency, and method of communication with children during the other parent’s parenting time, and a detailed method for conflict resolution in the decision-making process.
Additionally, depending on the specific needs of your family, parenting plans may include information about the children’s unique circumstances, including extracurricular activities that the parents agree their children will not participate in (i.e. football), specific medical, mental health, or educational needs or providers, and details regarding relationships or contact with extended family members.
While you are developing your parenting plan with the worst-case co-parenting scenario in mind, again, you and your fellow co-parent can be as flexible as you feel appropriate with one another. If it is your parenting weekend by court order, but your co-parent asks to take the kids on a camping trip, or if it is the other parent’s overnight, but your family is in town, you can (and should) certainly make reasonable and temporary adjustments to the schedule, as you see fit.
It is also important to understand that, especially when you have young children, your parenting plan will probably need to be formally modified at some point. Parenting plans for infants look very different than those addressing the schedules of school-age children, and a parenting plan for a teenager usually differs greatly from that of a fourth grader. A detailed plan gives you a firm foundation to build onto, as your family’s needs evolve over time.
At Gebhardt Emerson Moodie Bonanno, LLC, our experienced family law attorneys can help you develop a parenting plan that will help you transition smoothly into your next chapter. Our Denver family law attorneys can help you identify the potential pitfalls and benefits in different plans and will work closely with you to ensure that we are addressing the specific needs of your family. .