Updated: Jul 23
See chapter six in our book for a real-life example of a parenting plan. As you know, we are not attorneys but we would be happy to read over your draft parenting plan and offer our suggestions if you want an experienced set of eyes to take a look.
A personalized parenting plan is the goal of your custody battle. It’s the holy grail you seek. It is elusive and rare to find early in the process, but if you are lucky, mature, and willing to compromise, then there is no reason you cannot agree on a plan even before you begin your custody battle or a few months into it at the worst.
When we use the words “parenting plan,” we are referring to a settlement agreement, written and signed by both co-parents, that spells out the parties’ rights and obligations regarding each other and their child. It is a document that describes financial child support obligations, legal custody, and visitation rights. It is a product of both parties compromising and respecting each other’s roles. It will contain some standard legal language, but it will be customized to suit your child’s unique situation.
If you are stubborn, unreasonable, misinformed, vindictive, or trying to block the other parent’s rights, then you are unlikely to agree on a parenting plan unless one side is just so afraid of legal confrontation that they fold without a fight. Barring that exception, without a compromise, you will end up in a custody trial where the judge will pull out a standardized document and write in your names and a few minor changes before stamping it and sending you on your way. His “off-the-shelf” parenting plan will not work very well for either of you or your child.
But if you can find the wisdom and patience to compromise, you will have a much better parenting plan, customized to your unique situation. The customized parenting plan will be drafted by your attorneys, undergoing several iterations as it passes back and forth between the two parties. Each attorney will make sure their client’s most important needs and wishes are addressed while encouraging them to loosen up on the points that just aren’t worth fighting over in the long run.
Eventually, if you have a signed agreement before your trial, it will be submitted to the court as part of a filing known as a “consent order.” A consent order announces to the court that you have settled your differences and you both agree to terminate your litigation and live by the terms outlined in the document. The judge will approve nearly any agreement you come to with your co-parent so long as the basics are covered (financial support, legal custody, visitation) and as long as there is nothing in it that sounds nonsensical, harmful to the child, or likely to lead you back to court in short order.
My consent order starts by establishing I was our child’s biological father. It states that we agree to share joint legal custody. It says that Mom has primary physical custody, and I have visitation rights to be further outlined in detail in the “custody provisions” section of the document. Finally, it lays out child support payments amounting to $X and other financial issues concerning health insurance and legal bills.
The “custody provisions” referred to in the consent order are where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is customizable to your specific situation and where you will do most of your compromising over minor issues such as holidays. If you work well with your co-parent and you have a history of solving disagreements together, you might opt for a more generalized document that says things like “We will share holidays equally.”
However, if you don’t work well together and you are a stickler for details, then you will probably feel better with a document that tries to address every individual situation, such as “We define Christmas as forty-eight hours from noon December 24th to noon December 26th and will alternate that holiday each year.”
If you are in a high-conflict situation, the professionals (like Brook Olsen at HighConflict.net) recommend making your document as detailed as you can to avoid future debates. While it’s impossible to address every conceivable future contingency, Jess and I agree more detail is better than less. After all, if you are getting along great down the road, you can always toss the document aside and be flexible. But if you are prone to arguments, then a detailed plan is better than a vague one. If you are locked in a high-conflict battle with someone who will torment you at every turn, you will need a detailed document to show the authorities you were just following the agreement as it is written.
My parenting plan was detailed, but in hindsight, not detailed enough
We started our document with about three pages of bullet points that one of the attorneys had pulled out of their desk drawer. They were all items that made sense to us, and they seemed like a good way to get some consensus going before we got to the more challenging subjects, such as vacation schedules. The list included things like “Neither parent will criticize or demean the other or the other’s family either in or out of the child’s presence,” and “Each parent will respect time schedules and be prompt; when not possible notice shall be given as soon as possible to alert the other as to lateness and the reason.” Many of these sounded needless to me. Obviously, we would tell each other if we were running late for a meeting, right? But we included them anyway.
The list of bullet points also had a few paragraphs concerning “dispute resolution,” which we altered significantly after negotiating back and forth on this topic extensively. Dispute resolution concerns the steps we agreed to take to solve future disagreements using mediators or other methods rather than the court system. We will dig into this topic in a future post because dispute resolution is one of the most critical parts of your parenting plan and one of the most challenging parts to write efficiently.
After the three pages of bullet points on how we agreed to treat each other, our parenting plan had a long section spelling out my visitation access schedule. First, it described the twelve-month “phase-in” process, which was unnecessary in my opinion since I had seen my daughter every week of her life. Phase one gave me longer and longer daytime visits for three months after we signed our agreement. Phase two lasted for six months after that and included single overnight stays every other weekend but only at my parents’ home. Phase three lasted for three more months, now allowing full weekend overnight visits but again only in my parents’ home. The phase-in would be complete after twelve months (my daughter’s age two), at which point I would have her every other weekend with no more geographic restrictions.
This extremely lengthy, twelve-month, drawn-out phase-in was unheard of and unnecessary from my perspective and everyone else involved in the case except Mom. But it was the only way I could get her to settle our litigation. Overnight visits petrified her, and I realized the only way they were going to happen would be either a judge forcing it in a trial or me agreeing to a ridiculously long phase-in as part of a settlement. I opted to avoid the trial. Besides, at this point, I wasn’t entirely sure how well my daughter would do without her mom nearby since they were still nursing and co-sleeping in the same bed every day.
Importantly, our agreement said Mom and I would “share all the long-distance traveling burden equally up to a limit of X miles” and that “any distance beyond that was the responsibility of the party wishing to travel further away during their time with the child.” This language would prove essential because transitions would be one of the issues we argued about repeatedly over the years to come, given the long distance between us.
Holidays are described next in our custody provisions document. We didn’t do a great job designing a holiday schedule. It can be trickier than you think because some holidays are fixed; Martin Luther King Day is always the third Monday in January, while others float, like July 4th and Christmas. Typically, you alternate holidays from year to year. But what if Dad’s MLK Monday holiday falls adjacent to Mom’s weekend? You don’t want your child to spend all weekend with Mom and then Monday with Dad; you want to keep the long holiday weekend intact. Otherwise, the holiday loses its value.
We tried to share all the major national holidays: Christmas, New Year’s Day, MLK, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. Some people also include Columbus Day or other less well-known days like “teacher in-service days,” but we didn’t. I wish now that I had included all school holidays like teacher in-service days in my negotiations, but at that point, the school years felt like a lifetime away. Besides, the lawyers kept saying we would probably have to revise the whole document when school started.
We attempted to split Thanksgiving and Christmas into two blocks of time to be alternated each year, but our entire holiday section is quite poorly written, created many arguments, and didn’t serve us well. You'll want to make sure you review your holiday schedule with someone who has lived through a real-life co-parenting situation. Click here if you would like our help.
Our summer vacation language was even more confusing than our holiday schedule and led to even more disputes in future years. Again, Mom insisted on a bit of a phasing-in, starting with a few extra summer days in year one and working up to more in future years.
Importantly, our summer vacation language stated I would notify Mom of my chosen summer vacation days by April 15th each year and it was my unilateral choice as to which days I picked for vacation. That clause caused problems year after year because Mom wanted some say in designing the summer schedule each year.
Thinking back over the years, I’d have to say that holidays, summer vacation days, and even regular pick-ups/drop-offs for visit transitions created the most serious disputes between Mom and me. The disputes went on for years, led to litigation several years in a row, and are still a problem for us years later. So think carefully about these issues, but more importantly, think carefully about how you will resolve all the disputes that will arise in the future. We will address the very important topic of dispute resolution in a future post.
-Jim & Jessica
Jim and Jessica Braz are not lawyers. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give legal advice on this website. Furthermore, child custody laws, child support calculations, and family law, in general, vary from state to state. Be sure to consult an attorney in the appropriate state for your custody litigation.
Jim and Jessica Braz are not doctors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give medical advice on this website. Be sure to consult your doctor on your specific medical situation.
Jim and Jessica Braz are not licensed therapists, mediators, or counselors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, you should consult licensed professionals as needed.
The advice given on this website does not hold Jim and Jessica Braz legally liable for any adverse outcomes you may have from following their advice.
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