What is a parenting plan?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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A parenting plan is a plan parents come up with outside of litigation to govern child custody issues and other co-parenting issues that may arise after separation and divorce. If parents are able to agree on a parenting plan, they prevent the possibility that the court will make a decision with regard to child custody, including who gets primary legal and physical custody and visitation schedules, that may be unsatisfactory to both. Courts make decisions regarding child custody based on what is in the best interest of the child, and while the court will usually attempt to satisfy both parents, court decided custody arrangments often don’t work well for the parents and sometimes aren’t really best for the children involved.

For this reason, both parents should make an honest attempt to come to an agreement.

Understand Parenting Plans and How to Develop One That Works

If possible, try to develop a parenting plan before filing for custody of your children. If you are served with divorce or custody papers, be proactive in developing a plan. A parenting plan is a comprehensive agreement between you and your ex spouse about how you will share time and make decisions regarding your children. The plan is usually a written document that specifies how you will handle custody, living arrangements, holidays and vacations, medical care, financial obligations, as well as information on the emotional, physical, and educational opportunities that will be provided for your children.

When you begin developing your parenting plan, start with the basics including food, clothing, and housing. Steady employment will show the court that you have the means to pay for things like food, clothing, and housing. You will also need to make sure you have the appropriate living arrangements to accommodate your children. Most judges prefer that a child have his or her own room and his or her own bed. You may need to obtain a new apartment or convert your home office into a bedroom. If your child has special needs, includes the details of care in the parenting plan. 

If you are relocating to provide a better living environment for your children, seek areas that have resources for your parenting plan. For instance, a high-rise apartment complex may have more resources for childrearing, but a smaller apartment that is closer to good schools, parks, or museums may be a better option. In any case, be sure you are discriminating in your selection of living environments for your children.

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Creating a Plan for Vacations and Holidays

Besides determining your children’s living arrangements, it is important to create a plan for how you will handle vacations and holidays. Will your children alternate major holidays between each parent? Where will your children be during spring break and summer vacation? Will the schedule stay the same each year? Although spending time away from your children may be difficult to think about, they will likely benefit from spending alternate vacations and holidays with both you and your ex. This will allow your children to create memories of holiday traditions with each of you.

Incorporating Developmental Activities into Parenting Plans

Once you get past the basics, start looking for ways to incorporate developmental activities into your parenting plan. Use the parenting plan to show the court that you know your children and are interested in their development. Components that can demonstrate this include enrolling your children in extracurricular activities, joining a weekend club for children at your local art or science museum, and developing a relationship with a tutor if your children have struggled in school.

There is no “one size fits all” parenting plan. The key is to develop one that demonstrates balance and purpose. If music is not your child’s passion, do not enroll him or her in piano lessons just to add an activity to the list. Often, opportunities will present themselves if you take the time to find out what types of things excite your children.

Creating a Support System and Evaluating Finances

The final component of your parent plan should be information on collateral support. When you are in a pinch, who’s available to help you? Perhaps grandparents or cousins are available to help you with childrearing activities. They can also be your back-up plan in the event that you are running late from work. Courts like to see children raised by a family, not just by a daycare facility. If you do need to rely on daycare, be able to show how the daycare has resources available to help you as a parent beyond just babysitting. For example, many daycare centers now offer tutorial programs, field trips, and even pre-kindergarten programs.

In addition to these items, make sure you and your ex have made a plan about how you will handle financial and medical obligations, as well as any other area that is in the best interests of your children. The court is not going to require that you present your parenting plan in any specific form. How you present your parenting plan should be a reflection of your commitment to be a good parent.

Invest in the time to visit with your children, family members, and local single-parent support groups to develop a workable and sensible parenting plan. It may take a while to come up with an agreement that you and your ex are comfortable with, but it will be well worth the investment. Additionally, if you are committed to obtaining custody of your child or children, a clear outline of your parenting plan can tip the scales when all other factors are equal. 

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Reducing Conflict in Child Custody and Divorce Cases

Some states require a formal parenting plan to be filed with the court. Even if your state does not require one, it may still be worthwhile for you to develop a plan about how you and your ex will continue to parent together. Although separation and divorce proceedings can be difficult, it’s important to keep your children’s best interests in mind and create a parenting plan with clear expectations. This can frequently reduce conflict later on and allow for easier communication. If your plan is made into a court order, either one of you can ask the judge to enforce the terms of the agreement if one of you is not adhering to the plan.


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