Many separating and divorcing parents (as well as parents who have never been married) hire divorce experts from the mental health field (like me!) for help crafting their custody agreement — the document that describes how they will make decisions and take care of their children once their family is divided into two households. Sometimes they want that professional to serve as a facilitator who can offer expert advice, other times as a mediator. Some folks seek help on their own, others are referred by attorneys or attorney mediators who feel that a mental health professional (with a background in family systems and child development as well as expertise in separation and divorce) is often better qualified to help craft a plan that will be in children’s best interests now and into the future. And it doesn’t hurt that most mental health professionals charge lower hourly fees than do their attorney colleagues.
Sometimes a couple will work with a mental health professional independent of any legal process. Other times they’ll work with a mental health professional on parenting issues, and with attorneys (or an attorney mediator) on financial issues. Whether you and your co-parent get along well and agree on most aspects of parenting, or can barely speak to each other and disagree on almost everything, the right experienced mental health professional can help you come up with a detailed, workable plan that will hold up over time.
What is “custody” anyway?
The term custody is composed of two parts, “residential custody” (how much time children will spend with each parent and according to what schedule) and “legal custody” (how parents will make decisions related to three major areas- religion, health, and education). Shared residential custody means that each parent will have at the children living with them for a substantial number of overnights in a given year (the precise percentage varies by jurisdiction); joint legal custody means that both parents will have equal input into decision-making.
What is the difference between a “parenting plan” and a “custody agreement?”
Court-generated custody agreements are basic– they typically address the weekly and holiday schedules and decision-making on major issues, but not much else. They are also static, so they don’t change as the needs of a family change. They often contain boilerplate, legalistic language about how each parent will behave. Often parents don’t see this language until after their attorneys (or, a judge) have drafted the document. So while such language may make good sense in the abstract (e.g. “Parents agree not to disparage each other in the presence of their children”), it is unlikely to make much difference in real world interactions.
A good parenting plan, on the other hand, contains no boilerplate language. It goes far beyond the basics of scheduling and major decision making; it addressing the myriad (sometimes subtle) important issues that affect parenting on a day-to-day basis. A parenting plan is the product of a series of facilitated conversation in which the parents make their own decisions. But even if you want to maintain control over post split co-parenting decisions (and you should!), you’ll want guidance. After all, you’ve never done this before (at least not with this partner). When I’m working with a couple I offer the benefit of my years of experience working with divorcing parents and children of all stripes. I answer such questions as “How have other families handled various time-sharing schedules for kids of varying ages?”, “How have they shared holidays?”, “How have they dealt with the introduction of new significant others?” I help parents anticipate the not-so-obvious implications (positive and negative) of various ways of doing things and, if asked, I share the results of the latest research. Because children’s needs and family circumstances change over time, a good parenting plan is a living document. It is thoughtfully crafted, comprehensive, and written in such a way that it can meet the evolving needs of a developing family. It’s counterintuitive, but the more detailed your parenting plan the less likely you’ll be to refer to it over time. Why? Because knowing you have a default plan that is fair to both of you will probably leave you feeling freer to be flexible with each other when the time comes.
And remember: Your parenting plan is your floor. At any time you and your ex can mutually agree to make one-time or permanent modifications- without permission from a court or anyone else.
How do mental health experts work with a couple to craft a parenting plan?
Every professional works a bit differently. My typical protocol (it’s not cast in stone) involves:
- An initial joint session for the three of us to meet and for both parents to get a sense of what it would be like to work with me.
- Two individual appointments (one for each parent) in which they’ll have a chance to share their perspective and concerns. These are not confidential meetings (I won’t be holding any secrets), but it does give me time to get to know each parent better and to learn what is most important (or worrying) to them.
- A series of meetings (typically one and a half to two hours in length) in which we work through the clauses of the parenting plan.
What goes into a parenting plan?
A parenting plan contains a number of potential “clauses;” some will feel relevant to you and others won’t. How much detail to include for each clause (or whether to include a given clause at all) will depend on your particular situation and parenting dynamics. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of clauses that are typically addressed in a parenting plan:
- Shared Narrative: What will you tell your children about your divorce? How will you answer their questions?
- Decision-Making: How will you make decisions of such issues as education, religion, health, extra-curricular activities, child-care and summer camps? What decisions must be joint? What decisions can be made independently?
- Transitions of children: When will they happen? Where? Who will transport the children?
- Make-up time: What (if anything) will happen if either of you is unable misses a substantial amount of time with your kids?
- Right of first refusal: If one of you is unable to care for your children will you be obligated to offer that time to the other parent before hiring a babysitter? How much time will trigger this obligation (A few hours? An overnight?)
- Unscheduled days off from school:What will happen if school is closed unexpectedly or if the children are sick on a school day?
- Well medical: Who will take the kids to their routine medical/dental appointments?
- Holidays: How will you handle federal holidays and long weekends, as well as Thanksgiving and any other major/minor holidays you celebrate?
- Birthdays: How will you spend time with your children on their birthdays?
- Breaks from school: How will you handle Spring Break and Winter Break
- Summer and summer vacation: Will the ordinary weekly schedule continue into the summer, or will you change to a new one? How much time will each parent have to take vacations (or staycations) with the children?
- Communication: What (if any) protocols will you use in communicating with your children and with each other?
- Information sharing: What measures will you take to make sure each of you has access to and is up-to-date on all important information about your children (including educational, medical, and social)?
- Parent attendance at children’s events: Will both of you be free to attend all events to which parents are usually invited, or will you divide some of them?
- Introduction of new significant other: Do you want to discuss any “rules of the road” in this area?
- Relocation: Do you want to discuss any mutual expectations about how to handle a local or long-distance move on the part of one or both parents?
- Dispute resolution: What protocols will you follow for resolving disagreements in the future– hopefully without having to involve lawyers or the courts?
How long does it take to write a parenting plan?
How many sessions we will need to complete a particular couple’s plan depends on many factors such as:
- The number of children they have, and their ages
- Whether or not any of the children have special emotional, developmental or learning needs
- How much overlap or difference their is in the parents’ opinions, desires, and parenting styles
- The level of conflict between them
- The complexity of their lives
I have done parenting plans in as few as one session and as many as….. a lot. But I am always interested in efficiency- I want to spend as little of my clients’ time and money as I can while ensuring that both comfortable with their outcome and that I feel confident in the quality of our product.
Does a parenting plan become part of a separation or divorce agreement? Who drafts the parenting plan?
Again, different professionals work differently. I typically write draft parenting plan language in real time. I have my laptop open during meetings so I can capture our current draft language. At the end of each meeting I email both parents the latest working draft of the parenting plan, along with any “minutes” capturing general discussions we had during that meeting. That way parents can review working agreements (or options under consideration) between meetings, and can refer to the language itself if they have trouble recalling our latest conversations. Couples differ widely in how involved they want their attorneys to be in the process of crafting a parenting plan. Clients should always feel free to consult their attorney/s anywhere along the way, or wait and bring him or her a completed plan for review and final drafting. If a couple is planning to legally separate and/or divorce, their parenting plan will then get attached to the financial Agreement and become the Custody portion of your Separation Agreement or Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).
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