Parenting Plans: Avoiding An Agonizing Custody Settlement
We require our clients with children to read this post.
That’s because they need to understand how important the parenting plan in a Florida child custody case is in spelling out the rules of the road today and tomorrow.
You will turn to this document when there is a conflict with the other parent again and again until your youngest child goes off to college.
So let’s dive right in.
At its core a Florida parenting plan needs to spell out when the children will be with each parent and how decisions regarding the children will be made.
Timesharing: When Will The Children Be With Each Parent?
Timesharing as the most important issue in your case should be obvious.
Money can be won and lost, and the pain associated with the divorce will go away over time.
At the end of the day, time with your kids is everything in a divorce. And since there’s only so much time in a year, dividing the time between parents can be a difficult task.
Now we have two important things to figure out in the time-sharing plan. First, is how much time each week the child will be with each parent.
A second important factor is determining what days will the child be spending time with Mom and what nights will the child be spending time with Dad.
At a minimum, the parenting plan needs to define:
- Addresses of the parties.
- What days and nights the child is with Mom.
- Days and nights with Dad.
- The time, date, and place of exchanges.
- Travelling out of the state and out of the country.
- Relocation and parents moving.
Factors To Consider When Determining How To Allocate Parenting Time
HOW EACH PARENT SUPPORTS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE CHILD AND THE OTHER PARENT
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most important factors in determining parenting time is how each parent supports the relationship between the child and the other parent.
All things being equal, the parent who is more likely to encourage a healthy relationship with the child and the other parent is the parent who is most fit to have majority timesharing.
Think about it: we know that frequent contact with both parents is healthy. If Parent B is only going to have, say, 30% of the overnights, then it is even more important that Parent A, the majority parent, encourages a healthy relationship with Parent B.
DO WE HAVE A HIGH-CONFLICT OR LOW-CONFLICT CASE?
We have to be more aggressive with getting everything just right in high-conflict cases.
That’s because we are trying to minimize futureconflict and remove ambiguous situations.
Also, we will ideally have fewer exchanges in high-conflict cases, maybe even pre-designating exchange locations or tying the exchanges into school.
DISTANCE OF THE HOMES FROM EACH OTHER
The closer the parties’ homes are, the more frequent and flexible the plan can be. Distance is an issue that must be considered.
TRADITIONAL ROLES OF EACH PARENT IN CHILD RAISING
We want to look back and see how things have been traditionally handled. Did one parent do all of the homework and getting children ready for school? Or was it a joint exercise between two working parents?
CHILD’S RELATIONSHIP WITH EACH PARENT
Is there a strained relationship with the child and a parent? Is a child particularly bonded with a parent?
STABILITY: THE FAMILIARITY OF THE HOME, SCHOOL, AND NEIGHBORHOOD
Divorce is difficult enough for children. Can we embrace pre-existing stability for the child?
ADEQUACY OF THE HOMES
Does each parent have a stable home environment? This is often a more temporary concern when one (or both) parent(s) moves from the marital home and is getting settled into long-term housing. But if one parent is impaired and unable to provide basic shelter, a supervised parenting plan should be considered.
WORKING SCHEDULES OF EACH PARENT
If you work from home, we can build in more flexibility with the parenting plan. But if you’re in sales and you need to travel for extended periods, the parenting plan will need to include conditions to handle both unexpected and expected travel arrangements.
PARENTING CAPABILITIES OF EACH PARENT
Sometimes a parent may suffer to the extent that their parenting abilities are impaired. One example of this is untreated alcoholism, substance abuse, or mental illness in a parent.
Age And Needs Of The Child
INFANTS AND TODDLERS
We have one major goal when making parenting plans for infants and toddlers: to strengthen the long-term relationships between children and parents.
What About Overnights?
A big question for parents is handling overnights with infants and toddlers. The concern is that the children are so young that they should have one place to stay at night.
As a general rule, overnights care should be included when:
- The parents already have an established caretaking plan that is comfortable and safe for the child.
- The parents are able to focus on the child and look for indicators of stress, so that they can adjust the schedule as needed.
Basically, if neither parent is impaired and there already is a strong relationship with the child and the parents, then both parents should have overnights during the child’s tender years.
If a parent is impaired, then there should be a safety-focused plan in place. And if one of the parents simply does not have a relationship with the child, then a graduated step-by-step parenting plan should be used to slowly build the relationship between the child and the parent.
ELEMENTARY & MIDDLE SCHOOL CHILDREN
Elementary and middle school children can have increased anxiety and feelings of abandonment after parents separate. It’s important to make sure there is frequent contact between the child and both parents when developing a parenting plan.
Also, elementary and middle school kids attend school, and have specific routines and rituals on a nightly basis that help them survive and thrive.
The parents need to recognize that keeping routines consistent is important and should be addressed in the parenting plan.
ADOLESCENTS AND PARENTING PLANS
With this age group, cooperative parenting is essential. The parents must be able to put the children’s needs above their own problems. We don’t need adolescents to experience social dysfunction because the parents can’t get over themselves.
A parenting plan for adolescents must have some flexibility built in to account for the children’s burgeoning social lives. Teenagers need to be with their parents, but they also need to be able to do their own thing. Peer relationships are just as important as teen-parent relationships at this point.
Types Of Parenting Plans: What Type Is Right For You?
When there is significant distance to travel, we need to address this in a special type of parenting plan called a long-distance plan.
HIGHLY STRUCTURED PARENTING PLANS
When the conflict level between parents is medium to high, we want to go the extra mile and create a highly structured parenting plan.
This is all about minimizing parental conflict and putting the parents in the best position to succeed. If needed, we might even require parenting coordination or other tools to help eliminate conflicts and areas of disagreement.
When we have an impaired parent (drugs, alcohol, domestic violence) we should consider a safety-focused parenting plan.
BASIC PARENTING PLANS
Finally, if none of the above are required, a basic parenting plan is a great way for you to start. Amend only where needed.
Sample Timesharing Schedules
At the risk of sounding repetitive, let’s repeat: parenting plans should be created on a case-by-case basis specifically for your family. No two families are the same, and therefore each parenting plan needs to be thoughtfully customized to account for the uniqueness of the family.
With that said, there are certain timesharing schedules that we see over and over again. Let’s break them down below, starting with equal timesharing and moving towards plans where one parent has majority timesharing.
A common misunderstanding is that Florida law requires equal timesharing. This is simply not true. Florida law simply states that there are no presumptions – that every case should be decided on its own merits.
Advantages of Equal Timesharing
- Studies suggest that these children feel closer to both of their parents, and that children can thrive. See the Stanford Child Custody Project: http://www.socio.com/fam2527.php
- Generally speaking children are cared for less by babysitters and daycare, and fathers are more active. See here: http://lawfam.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/2/231.abstract
Disadvantages of Equal Timesharing
- May not work for special needs.
- Not workable for many families.
- Children can bear the burden of the organizational load (i.e. they will likely need to be on top of things more than if they were in one household).
- There are certain developmental arguments that this could be disruptive for young children, and does not provide the most stable situation.
This schedule has the children with one parent during most school nights and with the other parent during most non-school nights. While rotating weekends is an almost universal component in parenting plan schedules, this works well for a family where alternating weekends is not feasible.
Advantages: still provides equal timesharing for families than can alleviate a parent’s concern about having the children in “one place for school nights.”
Disadvantages: a parent may regret not having any weekend time with the children.
The 7/7 rotating arrangement is the simplest to remember and implement. The children simply shift households every week on a specific date and time.
This plan can be helpful in higher conflict cases where the parents struggle with exchanges. The negative, however, is that the kids go a long time without seeing the other parent.
The 2/2/5/5 is an arrangement where the children are with one parent Monday and Tuesday nights, with the other parent on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and with each parent on alternating weekends.
The advantage of this is the simplicity – the kids know exactly where they will be on any given day of the week.
The biggest disadvantage of this plan is that it results in a five-day block every week where the children are away from a parent.
During the first week on a 2/2/3, the children are with Parent A for two nights, then with Parent B for two nights, and then with Parent A for three nights. The schedule then alternates so that on the second week Parent B has the first two nights, Parent A the second two nights, and then Parent B has the next three nights.
Advantages: this schedule prevents the children from being away from either parent for more than three nights.
Disadvantages: it does not provide consistent weeknights for the children on what nights they will be with the parent. This also requires six transitions every two weeks, which might be difficult for high- conflict parents.
In other families it makes more sense for the children to spend more overnights with one parent than with the other.
The 8/6 is an approach where both parents have substantial time with the children, but one parent has one additional overnight per week.
The 9/5 is the traditional every other weekend and one overnight per week.
Finally, the 10/4 is a more imbalanced time-sharing plan. It is appropriate when one parent is shouldering a much higher percentage of the parenting responsibility.
Timesharing And The Holidays
School breaks are defined by the school calendar – think spring break, summer break, and winter break. These are substantial blocks of time when the child is not in school. By either rotating the breaks or splitting them in half, we allow for longer periods of timesharing with each parent.
Advantages of Defining Breaks:most timesharing schedules have frequent contact that makes travelling difficult. The best time to travel for most families is during breaks from school.
Disadvantages: breaks are an additional opportunity for parents to have disagreements. You have to pull out the school calendar of course. Sometimes high-conflict parents will fight over what school calendar to use. Then, everyone will need to return to the regular timesharing schedule when the breaks are over.
Note that with summer break, a family may want to break into an equal timesharing 7/7 rotating custody agreement to give more timesharing to the minority parent, but without affecting a child’s schedule.
Relatedly, parents may want to designate vacation time in the parenting plan.
For example, parents may go with a rotating custody plan during the summer, but want to keep open the option of either parent taking the children on an extended vacation for two or more weeks. The parties may want to allow each parent to select times to take such vacations.
Who Will Make Decisions For Your Children?
The best parenting plans precisely spell out rules regarding how the parents make decisions for the children.
Decision-making focuses on which types of decisions the parents can make by themselves, and which types of decisions require both parents to agree.
Generally speaking, each parent will make routine decisions for the children when they are in that parent’s care.
Examples of routine decisions include when the kids can watch television, play with electronic devices, when the kids can play outside versus doing homework, meal selection, clothing, eating schedules, and bedtimes.
In an ideal world, the parents will present a united front on these issues and communicate about them. However, in general the parent caring for the children at that time makes the decisions unless otherwise spelled out in the parenting plan.
Emergencies: in every plan, each parent should have full authority to make unilateral decisions when there is an emergency. There often is not enough time to communicate and have an open dialogue with the other parent when there’s a truly emergency situation. In any case, the plan must articulate exactly how emergencies are to be handled.
TYPES OF MAJOR DECISIONS ADDRESSED IN PARENTING PLANS
Parents often disagree on major decisions like education and extracurricular activities after they divorce. The best parenting plans will define how major decisions will be made, in an effort to minimize the unknown in the future.
Health Care Decisions:think medical treatment, dental, braces, psychological, counseling, and the like. We see parents who end up back in court over new medical issues and different desires for treatment.
For example, consider the case where Dave and Mindy’s child has been diagnosed with ADHD by a family physician. Mindy wants to act quickly, and uphold the doctor’s recommendation to prescribe ADHD medication.
Dave is not surprised; this is just what he expected from Mindy during the marriage – she’d rather throw pills at a problem than try to get to the root of it. Dave would rather use alternative therapies, such as counseling and nutritional supplementation, to try to solve the problem. Further, Dave thinks it is inappropriate for a family physician to have diagnosed ADHD and wants his child to see a neurologist.
Mindy thinks Dave is out of his mind and insists that the child be treated with conventional medicine.
How do the parents handle this disagreement on the major decision of health care for the child? The first step is to look at the parenting plan. If the parenting plan, like most, gives shared parental responsibility, then we might have a problem here. Does the parenting plan give us a tiebreaker, or a method for dispute resolution under these circumstances?
Education and Day Care
Think about daycare programs for younger kids, afterschool programs or going “latchkey” for older kids, and the decision of whether schools should be private and public. Without a clearly defined parenting plan, educational decisions that come up down the road could lead to a high amount of conflict.
For example, consider a common situation in Pinellas County, Florida. The county has given parents an abundance of private and public education options that don’t necessarily fall within a particular school district. As a result, it’s often not as simple as tying the children’s school to a particular geographic location. The law makes it clear that educational decisions are, unless otherwise defined in a parenting plan or other legal document, shared decisions between the parents.
Religious decision-making can cause conflict during a marriage. Therefore it’s not surprising that we see religious decision-making causing conflict after the marriage as well.
Consider where the child is going to worship. Should the child get more formalized religious training then he or she is currently getting? Because we often rotate weekends as part of a timesharing plan, does Parent A have to make sure that the child gets to the religious activity every Sunday that Parent B has proposed?
Last but certainly not least is extracurricular activities. Think sports, clubs, summer camps, etc.
Consider a situation we recently encountered where the parents have agreed to split the cost of any mutually agreed-upon extracurricular activities. Traditionally, the eldest son played soccer twice a year.
As the son got older, he moved up the ranks into more select leagues. The problem is these more select leagues often require a lot more travel, and therefore often cost a lot more.
When the eldest son turned 12 and reached a new tier of advanced soccer, the father had had enough. In his mind the costs and time required to travel to get the son to these events was too much for a 12-year-old boy. The mother had a different opinion: she believed that the son truly and genuinely wanted to play, and they had always supported the son and soccer. To the mother, this was a natural progression of things and something to be happy about, that the son was doing so well.
Unfortunately, the mother did not make much money and without the father contributing to the soccer, she couldn’t afford it. The mother wanted to see what we could do about the father’s refusal to contribute to their son’s soccer.
The answer to these questions required us to go back and take a look at the parenting plan.
So now that we have reviewed the decision-making areas that need to be addressed in a parenting plan, the next logical question is to decide how to allocate the decision-making.
How to Allocate Decision-Making
Unless there is a good reason not to do so, most parents will end up with shared decision-making when it comes to major decisions regarding their children.
It’s important to realize that this is the first type of decision-making when it comes to major decisions by courts. However, we need to identify at the onset if the parents are high conflict or lower conflict. Ideally in a shared decision-making scenario, the parents will work together to do what’s best for the children. Each parent will consider each other’s perspective, weigh all the pros and cons, and guide themselves into better decisions.
Much like our form of government, shared parenting provides checks and balances to make sure that neither parent is running away and doing the wrong thing.
But shared parental responsibility in higher conflict cases can create massive problems. Sometimes the parents can’t agree, much like our legislators, and ultimately nothing gets done. Even worse it can continually drag both parents back into court.
When the conflict level is low, shared decision-making responsibility is the obvious choice. When the conflict level is higher, the parents need to consider one of the alternatives below.
One alternative is to give one parent the sole power to make all decisions. In this scenario you don’t require or even expect that the parents will try to work together to agree on decisions for the children. Simply, one parent unilaterally makes a decision.
The judge has to actually believe, usually with the help of professionals, that shared parental responsibility would be detrimental to the children. Leaving one parent out of the process can make the other parent feel alienated and like they don’t have any say, which of course they don’t. This can also be detrimental to the children.
What if you know there’s going to be conflict between you and the other parent, but not enough conflict that a court is going to only let one person make all the decisions?
You might be a candidate for divided decision-making.
Divided decision-making separates the major types of decisions, and allows one parent to have to sole decision-making in some areas and the other to make decisions in the remaining areas.
For example, Mom and Dad might both keep shared decision-making on most major issues, but Mom makes all decisions regarding a single area such as extracurricular activities. So while the parents have to reach a consensus in other areas, Mom decides extracurricular activities. It’s up to her whether to even ask for Dad’s input.
Now, this might not seem fair to Dad. So perhaps to make everything fair, Dad might get sole decision-making on school-related matters.
In the best scenarios, we look for the parent who has better experience in a particular area and have them make decisions.
So for example, Dad is a doctor and Mom is a schoolteacher.
Dad and Mom are in a high-conflict divorce and just can’t make any joint decisions together. Accordingly, they’re looking for a way to use divided decision-making authority to cut down on future disagreements.
Well, Dr. Dad certainly has the training and experience to understand health care and health care decisions. So perhaps we simply give Dad the ability to unilaterally make those health care decisions.
Conversely since Mom is a teacher, Mom truly understands education. So perhaps we simply give Mom the ability to make the decisions related to education.
Divided decision-making is best when both parents can make good decisions; it’s just that they for whatever reason disagree with each other (almost as if it’s on reflex) when it comes to making decisions. Therefore, let’s try to have divided decision-making from the beginning.
Of course the negative side of divided decision-making is obvious: in Florida we presume that both parents should be making decisions together, and the very nature of divided decision-making results in parents making decisions separately. As a result this is really something we’re only using when we have to.
Shared Parental Responsibility With “Tiebreakers”
A final option is to use tiebreakers to help us resolve any disputes that the parents have that they can’t resolve on their own.
For example, the parties could agree that if they can’t make a decision on a big issue that they will submit the matter to a parenting coordinator or other professional to help them resolve the dispute.
Or for another example, consider the decision of where the child should go to school. The parents know that this can be an issue in a couple of years. Mom lives in Largo. Dad is a big fan of public school, and lives in East St. Petersburg.
Right now the child attends a public school in Pinellas County where she has gone since kindergarten, but the child is now in the fifth grade. What will happen for sixth grade?
One way is to use a tiebreaker: perhaps if the parents can’t agree, then we let the child go to the school that has the highest rating.