"While we are both OK with shared custody, trying to define all the details has become a big issue," John told me. "I think the kids will be best off if they trade off one week with me and one with Carol, but she thinks for their stability, they should primarily live at her home, where they have grown up, and then just stay with me on weekends, half of the holidays and half of the summer. I hate that concept."
"John just doesn't know what children need; he has never been with them 24/7 because his career just was too important and time consuming. Candidly, I am worried about him having them so much; I suspect they will just be handed off to a babysitter most of the time," Carol suggested.
Who is wrong and who is right? As is in the case with many couples, the truth is in between. The best answer for all concerned - both parents and the children - is to find an arrangement for their care that best meets their needs. And that answer can only be found when everyone gets their issues on the table, addresses them objectively, and comes up with a plan.
In the world of child custody, that plan is known as a parenting plan. A parenting plan is negotiated between the parents and their legal counsel and then is approved by the court in defining the custody arrangements.
Parenting plans help define the new world in which the children will live and operate and carefully define the roles of each parent. Once approved by the family court judge, the parenting plan is enforceable on both parents and both will need to keep their obligations under the plan.
It is important to remember that when you were married, you had a parenting plan - it just wasn't reduced to writing. You and your partner figured out together how to raise the children. In John and Carol's case, John worked full-time and was the primary provider. While Carol worked part-time as a teacher's aide while the kids were in school, she was the primary caregiver and had the major responsibility for the kids' day-to-day lives. John enjoyed time with the family and on weekends and vacations. He helped in the evenings with homework and spent several hours a week with household chores an care for the yard. When the kids needed things or if a doctor visit was required, John and Carol both discussed it and made a decision together.
What is in a parenting plan?A parenting plan looks a lot like what was just described, only it considers the challenges of having the children living in two homes with unmarried parents. consists of the following essential elements:
Physical custody. This section of the plan details the time each parent will have custody of the children. Here is where you would record the days when the children will live with one parent and then with the other. It will cover things like holidays, summer visits, the hours the children will be with each, what physical arrangements will be made (like their own or shared rooms), and so forth.
Transportation and custody exchanges. The parenting plan also specifies who is responsible for transportation when the children's custody changes hands, where the exchanges will happen and what the ground rules will be.
Legal custody. The plan will also define which parent has the responsibility for making decisions about the children. If the parents have joint legal custody, it usually requires both parents to communicate and agree about major decisions. This section helps define that relationship, how critical decisions are made when both parents are not available, and what happens when the parents cannot agree.
Child support. Parenting plans also typically include the ground rules for calculating child support payments and what items are included in regular support payments and which are not.
Health care. The plan should also include information about health care for the children, both physical and mental in nature. Issues about who provides and pays for health insurance, whether health care costs are included in child support or not, and who makes decisions about securing health care should all be addressed in a parenting plan.
Schools and school records. The parenting plan should also address the details about children's education. Which schools will they attend? How should the parents decide if there is a change in schools? What records will be accessible to which parents? Who will have the ability to address other issues related to the children's education and under which circumstances?