Custody decisions are among the most difficult, delicate, frightening, and painful parts of a divorce process. Even the legal language surrounding it is incredibly fraught—after the agonizing decision that you’ll no longer live together, the idea that one parent would have only” visitation” can feel heartbreaking.
When you get divorced, your relationship as a married couple is over. But if you have children together, your relationship as parents—with your kids and with each other—continues. Whether your split is cooperative and amicable or contentious and bitter, except in rare circumstances, you will both go on raising your shared children. It may be very collaborative or distant between you and your ex. In any case, it probably won’t be easy.
The good news is that your parenting plan is an opportunity for you to actively shape the best arrangement for your children and the whole family in its new form. The more you can set aside differences and work together on creating a plan, the better.
When people think of a custody agreement, they may picture a typical visitation schedule —every other weekend, perhaps one evening mid-week, plus alternate holidays and a few weeks in the summer. The most common arrangement in California is for one parent to have physical custody and both parents to share legal custody. But the court must always consider the child’s best interests above all else. Unless in rare cases (concerns about safety or parental fitness), you’ll want to prioritize substantial, meaningful time with both parents and maintain an ongoing relationship and frequent contact.
A custody and visitation order and a parenting plan in California are synonymous.
The custody and visitation order establishes physical custody (who the child lives with most of the time) and legal custody (who has the right to make significant decisions about the child’s upbringing—health and medical, religious, and education).
A parenting plan is both broader and more detailed. It includes custody and visitation but also outlines how parents will share responsibilities. It can address a wide range of issues: daily routine, transportation to and from school and activities; transitions between parents/households; childcare, diet, nap schedule, discipline, rules/behavior; who goes to medical appointments, arranges playdates; visitation with extended family; guidelines for parents when dating new people; and more. It should also include procedures for how you’ll communicate and how to negotiate future changes to the agreement.
The parenting plan—created and signed by both parents, approved by the judge, and filed with the court—becomes a court order, part of your final divorce decree.
Tips for creative and successful parenting plans:
Seek common ground. You love your kids and want what’s best for them, so focus on mutual goals. Center the children. What do they need? Security, stability, love, and close relationships. What are their interests, things that enrich their lives, something you believe in and are committed to doing?
No parenting plan is perfect. It’s not one-size-fits-all. The plan that’s right for your family is the one that works for you. You may decide you can truly co-parent (collaborate, interact, and communicate frequently), or perhaps you’ll choose parallel parenting (communicate in writing only, interact very little, parent separately). Regarding physical arrangements, you might decide that the children go back and forth between parental households. Still, “nesting”, when the kids stay in the family home and the parents trade-off, is increasingly popular.
Be realistic. Honestly assess your schedule and availability. If you seek shared custody, be sure it’s because you desire and can spend that time with the children. It shouldn’t be a means of avoiding support payments or demanding fairness. Don’t use the parenting plan to make a point. It’s about your children, not your rights.
Consider their ages. Young children thrive on routine and require stability. Too much change can be stressful. They have a minimal concept of time and therefore need shorter and more frequent time together. They shouldn’t be away from the primary caregiver for too long. Older kids do well with a home base but can do more extended visits away. They need a balance between boundaries, flexibility in their schedule, and space for friends and activities. They should participate in planning and have a voice.
Put plans for change within the plan. As you put the plan into practice and as your children grow and change, there will be times when you need to modify it. Be sure to include official procedures for modification—temporary and long-term—in the plan. Willingness to be flexible will pay off for everyone.
At SFLG, we’re experienced in every facet of family law. Our knowledgeable, skilled, and compassionate attorneys can help you navigate the emotional and logistical challenges of negotiating a fair and satisfying parenting plan.
by Debra Schoenberg