If 2020 taught us anything, it is that you can never anticipate every possible “what if” in your life. For parents, 2020 was wrought with complications, including cancellation of extracurricular practices and activities, closures of daycare facilities and summer camps, quarantine requirements, distancing from caretakers (like grandparents), and of course, facilitating virtual learning. While it is impossible to account for every possible hypothetical co-parenting issue, it is important for you to consider potential changes in future circumstances when you and your family law attorney are discussing your parenting plan.
How can you predict the future? You can’t. However, working with an experienced family law attorney will help you determine what issues may arise. Parenting plans can be modified to meet the best interests of your children, which means that they can be changed, either by agreement or by an order of the court.
Decision Making. One of the major components of your parenting plan will identify how you and your co-parent are going to make decisions for your children.
Many parents are, however, crafting a parenting plan long before they have had to make many “major” decisions about their children. How, without a crystal ball, do you know whether you are going to be able to choose schools together, make decisions about costly orthodontia, or sort out extracurricular activity schedules?
If you and your co-parent share a similar system of values and are largely on the same page about what is best for your children, then you are probably never going to have an issue with decisions like these. However, most seasoned family law attorneys will tell you that the benefit of a well-crafted parenting plan puts you in a position where you can hope for the best, but makes sure that you have planned for the worst.
Co-parenting dynamics can change, especially with big life events. You or your co-parent may become involved with a new romantic partner, your child may be diagnosed with an illness that requires new parenting responsibilities of both of you, or you or your co-parent’s professional life may shift in a way that impacts parenting time logistics. You may also simply have unforeseen differences of opinions.
Even though you and your co-parent may be on the same page now, if that changes, you want to make sure that you are not stuck having to go back to court. A good parenting plan will outline exactly what should happen in the event that you reach an impasse. This may include agreeing to mediation or arbitration if you cannot make a decision or identifying some other type of “tie breaker,” such as having a parenting coordinator and/or decision-maker appointed.
Parenting Time. Unless you have older children, your first parenting plan is unlikely to be your last.
Circumstances change. Co-parents move, both your children’s schedules as well as parents’ schedules change, and yes, sometimes an unforeseeable life event occurs (such as a global pandemic). While some changes are inevitable (such as your child reaching school age), others are not.
So how do you put together a parenting plan that is as comprehensive and timeless as possible? If inevitable changes are in your future (such as planning for a parent who is in a medical residency program to possibly move), then building in a timeline or triggering event(s) for a formal review of the parenting plan can be a helpful tool.
Mapping out what you and your co-parent are going to do if you cannot reach an agreement can also save you substantial time, energy, and money. Building in a path to resolution is always advisable, or else you may find yourself left without any option but going to court in the future.
Child Support and Child-related Expenses. Over the course of 2020, we saw many people struggle to meet their financial obligations. Child support may be modified when there is an ongoing and continuing change in circumstances, and if those changes result in a 10% or greater change in the amount of child support to be paid. This could be a change in income, a change in parenting time, or a change in extraordinary expenses for your children.
While there isn’t much that can be done to avoid the potential need to modify child support in the future, making sure that you and your co-parent are aware of your obligations to one another can help avoid the need to involve the court.
For example, clearly spelling out in your parenting plan what documents are to be exchanged by a certain date each year, so that you can determine whether a change may need to be made in child support based on cash-flow, can be helpful. While Colorado law already asks this of parents, many remain unaware of this obligation until it is spelled out in a parenting plan.
Outlining the logistics of paying for shared child-related expenses (such as uninsured medical expenses and extracurricular activities) can also help you avoid future potential conflict. A good parenting plan generally outlines what expenses are to be shared, in what proportion, when reimbursement is due to the other parent (or whether certain expenses are to be paid directly), and what happens if a parent fails to reimburse the other for a shared expense.
While even the most seasoned family law attorney cannot predict every possible issue that your family will face in the future, a good parenting plan will, at a minimum, outline a path to potential resolution for you and your co-parent, so that you are not forced to seek intervention from the court.
Authored by: Ashley G. Emerson, Partner