One of the biggest areas of concern (and often misunderstanding) during a divorce is child custody. We frequently work with couples to create parenting plans, and I have found that providing a basic understanding of these plans, also called custody and visitation agreements, can help ease anxiety for all parties involved.
If you and your spouse can agree on a parenting plan, you do not have to have a court order. The downside is that without a court order, you will not have legal recourse should one partner violate the agreement. The court can only intervene once the agreement is filed with the court and becomes a court order.
It’s important to know that from a legal aspect, custody and visitation orders are not set in stone. There is a common fear that you’ll be locked into whatever you agree to during your divorce. In fact, these orders are often modified over time. Things change as children get older, and it is quite likely that the arrangements that were made in the best interests of young children may not make sense when they are adolescents or teens.
I want to underscore that the main focus of any parenting plan should be what is in the best interests of the children. Understandably, when people are facing the end of a marriage or domestic partnership, they are likely to experience a range of tumultuous feelings, fears and new realities. In the midst of this whirlwind, it is important to not let what is happening between you and your partner overshadow the needs of your children. They are undoubtedly going through a similar upheaval and minimizing the impacts on them should be a priority of both parents.
It is important that any plan be developmentally appropriate based on the age of the children involved. In helping our clients create parenting plans, we will often defer to child developmental professionals such as psychologists to make age-appropriate recommendations. In general, younger children need to have extremely clear boundaries, especially at the beginning of the process. Unpredictability can cause anxiety, so we often find that the experts may advise that there be as little change as possible in the early stages of separation or divorce.
This suggestion requires both parents to make an honest assessment of their interaction time with their children. If through no fault of their own, one parent has typically spent less time with the children, suddenly changing that drastically in order to make things “fair” for the parents can cause stress for a child. It may be helpful to take a longer view of the situation and consider adding additional visitation time over a period of months or years in order to not disrupt regular routines for your child.
In some instances, couples opt for a nesting relationship during and after a divorce, where the children remain in the family home and the parents will alternate between living in the home and elsewhere.
While parenting plans can be as loose or as detailed as you wish, it is helpful to have clear boundaries spelled out. Keeping things too unstructured increases the possibility of conflict and miscommunication. Also, in the event that a parent violates the agreement, a clear plan (and court order) provides a pathway for procedural recourse. The non-violating parent can contact the police and ask them to contact the other party to enforce the agreement. (If the police are unwilling to get involved, you may need to go to the court for intervention help.)
Finally, it can be very helpful for both the parents and the children if the agreed-upon visitation schedule is set up in an online calendar that both parents can log into. This provides a clear understanding of who is responsible for a child at any given time, and can reduce the likelihood of misunderstanding or miscommunication.
If you would like more information on parenting plans and child custody agreements, please give us a call at 1-800-359-7004 or use our online contact form.