In an ideal world, Mom and Dad will be able to get along and co-parent their children peacefully.
Unfortunately that is not always the case.
Even if parents have a somewhat amicable divorce, it is still a smart idea to have an agreeable parenting plan in place and filed with the court.
Two people don’t always agree about everything. If they did, a divorce probably wouldn’t be happening.
Make sure everyone is covered by submitted a parenting plan. That way there is a document to fall back on if you hit a rough patch. This is especially essential if you are in a high-conflict situation, have special considerations that will make co-parenting difficult, or have major differences in parenting methods.
After all, the best parenting plan is one that actually exists.
This is a long one (3000+ words!) so get ready for a ton of useful info. You can pin this to come back to later.
- What is a “parenting plan”?
- What should be in a parenting plan?
- Big-ticket Items
- Living Situation
- Boyfriends/Girlfriends, and Spouses
- When Plan Can Be Overridden
- Method of Communication
- How Agreements Are Made
- Major Behavioral Problems
- Right of First Refusal (RFR)
- How To Make Adjustments To Schedules
- Holidays and Birthdays
- Vacation Periods
- Other Events – Wedding, Funerals, Etc
- Drug and Alcohol Tests
- Household Rules
- Pickups, Drop-offs, Transportation, and Tardiness
- Emergency Contact Lists
- Extra-Curricular Activities
- Phone Calls
- Vehicles, Gas, and Insurance
- Dispute Resolution
- When A Child Wants To Stay With The Other Parent
- A Do and a Don’t for parenting plans
- Pulling it all together
What is a “parenting plan”?
A custody agreement, or parenting plan, depending on where you live, is a formal document that outlines the parenting relationship between a child’s biological (or legal) parents, the decision-making duties, and the child’s schedule for time with each parent.
They can be created and filed without an attorney OR mediated and agreed upon through a court process.
A good parenting plan will cover the big-ticket items and give a basic outline of what to expect.
A great parenting plan doesn’t leave room for interpretation and will anticipate areas of conflict.
The parenting plan our family lives with is a pretty darn good one. But even it has room for improvement. Through experience and research, I’ve formed the following list of topics every parenting plan should have.
Admittedly, step parents like myself don’t have a lot – if any – say in what is present in a parenting plan. But this list can be useful for any family going through a divorce or separation, looking to put a plan in place, or looking to modify an existing plan.
As always, this is not legal advice. Just the advice of an experienced stepparent.
In no particular order….
This page contains affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase through these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read the full disclosure here.
What should be in a parenting plan?
These items are a given for all parenting plans. They are usually contained in the paperwork that must be filed with the courts.
Primarily, we’re talking about parenting time and decision making.
Parenting time should be specific and include exact days and times. For example: The child will be with Father on [these days] from [these times] and mother on [these days] from [these times].
Decision making means who can make what decisions. For example, a shared decision making plan means both parents make joint decisions on x, y, and z items.
These items include schooling, health, religion, etc. Anything that both parents agree is important enough that they should both ‘have a say’ can be included.
Cell Phones and Social Media
Cell phones and social media play a huge roll in kids’ lives these days. And parents should reasonably control the access their children have to them.
The least complicated way of handling this category of items would be to include it in the list of items that parents must jointly decide on. This allows for changes in technology and society without being overly restrictive.
RELATED POST: Screen Time – Keys to Keep Everyone Happy and Healthy
I’ve witnessed first-hand the chaos that descended on a friend’s life when their co-parent lost housing. They jumped from couch to couch with no permanent space for the child to call their own.
I would highly recommend any parenting plan specify that the parent will have permanent lodging with personal space for the child. Don’t go crazy with this. I mean, if they’re sharing a room with a sibling, that’s okay. But they should have a place to sleep.
And then have contingencies for what happens if housing is lost. Do they go to the other parent? Or is that parent given a certain amount of time to remedy the situation?
Whatever the case may be, this can be crucial in some situations!
Boyfriends/Girlfriends, and Spouses
This might not be the first thing on your mind while you’re in the process of divorce or separation, but IT WILL HAPPEN EVENTUALLY!
I will include several ways to include step-parents in the list below, but for right now we’re looking at more ‘big picture’ items.
- Is there a minimum time a parent has to be seeing someone before they can meet the kids?
- Are girlfriends and boyfriends allowed to sleepover when the kids are there?
- Can the kids sleep at the gf/bf’s house?
- At what point can the partners watch the kids by themselves?
Just keep in mind that whatever restrictions you put in place apply to you both. You might choose to leave this section out. Hopefully you can trust the other parent to make wise decisions with regards to their love life and the children.
When Plan Can Be Overridden
What happens if the child is sick, for example. Some parents will try to override the parenting plan by saying ‘they aren’t well enough’ to leave that parents house. And then what about siblings? If one stays do the others go?
Think very carefully about this one.
Whether you want to create conditional situations is up to you. However, I highly recommend that it be stipulated these conditions can only occur when they are agreed upon by both parent.
The last thing you want is a built-in loophole that you have no influence over.
Method of Communication
Some co-parents are able to communicate without issues. If that is the case, your parenting plan should include a statement that communication can occur in any way deemed appropriate. I do not recommend this method. If the relationship sours, you may find conflicts arising here.
No matter what method you chose, you will want to include a time-frame for communication to occur. For example, response within 48 hours and not after the hours of 12 am or before 6 am unless it’s an emergency.
However, for high-conflict situations, you will want to specify how communication occurs.
For example, “parties will communicate via email and a response must be received with 48 hours.” Be sure to include the specific email addresses being used.
One method that many people don’t even realize is an option is to use co-parenting apps and website. These aren’t just for high-conflict situations, although they are often court ordered in those cases.
They include documented communication, custody schedules, important notes about health and activities, etc. They are your go-to shop for anything pertaining to your kids.
I highly recommend Our Family Wizard. The website and app contain literally everything you could ever need! They are recognized in all 50 states!
How Agreements Are Made
Being able to agree is the most crucial part of shared decision making. And documenting that agreement is imperative.
Parenting plans should contain specific language for how agreements are to be made. Can they happen verbally or do they need to be in writing? Is there a deadline for agreeing to something?
Verbal agreements, by the way, are not the wisest decision. You should include language that they must be documented via text, email, or in writing.
Major Behavioral Problems
No one wants to picture their children having behavioral problems. But worse yet is if they exist and you cannot do anything about it.
Examples of major behavioral problems could be issues at school, legal troubles, or substance abuse. Some parents even include lying issues.
Including a section about how these problems are to be identified and addressed is a smart move.
Also, the plan should be written so that the issues only have to be identified at one home. Even if your child is not drinking at your house, it’s still a problem if they’re doing it at their other home.
Right of First Refusal (RFR)
RFR is becoming increasingly more common in parenting plans. Essentially, it means that if the child is going to be cared for by someone other than the parent/stepparent for a set amount of time, you have to be given the opportunity to watch them first.
Also, include language that excludes things like sleepovers and time with grandparents. The last thing you want to do is make it impossible for your child to spend time with their family and friends because it will exceed the timeframe.
How To Make Adjustments To Schedules
There are situations that will come up when the parenting time has to be adjusted. It’s just the nature of the beast.
So be sure to include how those adjustments will occur.
Will the time be made up by the parent who missed out? Or will everything stay on schedule regardless of holidays, vacations, etc?
Your answer to these questions will probably depend on what the routine is. If you only see your kids every other weekend, are you willing to give up time for special circumstances?
Holidays and Birthdays
Speaking of schedule adjustments, holidays and birthday are a few you’ll have.
Decide which holidays you want to share and establish a rotation for them. For example, Mother will have all Thanksgiving holidays on even numbered years, while father has odd numbered years.
Be sure to include birthdays!!
This was overlooked in our parenting plan, and as a result, my husband’s parenting time has only fallen on the kids’ birthdays a small handful of times since his divorce in 2013.
Beyond the rotation, you also want start and stop times. For example, Valentines Day (if that’s one you want to share) probably only needs to be the day of. Where Christmas should start the day before at [certain time] and end the day after at [certain time].
Be sure to include specific times. This isn’t just for covering yourself. When you’re making plans with family, it’s really helpful to know when you will and won’t have the kids down to the hour.
Also on the subject of schedule adjustments, if you have a ‘time on/time off’ schedule, both parents should be allowed a vacation period at some point during the year.
Often it is specified that it occurs during the summer so schooling is not interrupted. Vacation should last longer than the usual parenting time (2 weeks, for example), be uninterrupted, and be scheduled a certain amount of days in advance.
45 day notice before a vacation period is reasonable. You may consider if either parent can reject. For example, if you schedule a vacation period and notify your co-parent, can they say they’ve already got something planned for that time?
This is a tough call, especially in high-conflict situations where approval, denial, or vacation time may be used as a weapon against the other parent.
If nothing else, have a built-in method for having vacation disputes decided (mediation, for example).
Other Events – Wedding, Funerals, Etc
These fall into the ‘other’ category that parenting plans often neglect. This doesn’t have to be complicated, though.
A simple statement that adjustments need to be made to allow for weddings, funerals, etc. would be sufficient.
Trust me, I spent a lot of time leading up to my wedding worried that my husband’s ex would request vacation during the scheduled time. We kept it strictly need-to-know as long as possible and celebrated after the 45-day notification deadline had passed. We didn’t even know if anything would come of our worry, but it wasn’t fun considering it. To her credit, nothing was even mentioned that would have caused issues.
Drug and Alcohol Tests
Substance abuse issues are worth going to court for.
However, if you’re not interested in going that route, both parties would have to agree to include language that requires parents or caretakers to be tested.
This is worth having in the plan if you believe there is an issue. Fight for it through mediation or court if you have to!
Good grief this one has caused so many problems and can remedied so easily!
Both parents should be able to set the rules for their house. And no co-parent should have so much authority that they can disrupt your life and peace by trying to dictate daily life.
As long as the safety and health of the child(ren) are not being compromised, things like curfews, bedtimes, when showers occur, etc should be decided in the home.
Definitely include a statement allowing household rules to be set by the household.
A scenario to consider: your child gets in trouble for lying at your house. They are grounded for 2 weeks. Do you want or expect the co-parent to enforce this punishment at their house also?
This can be a sticky situation. No all household rules at each house will apply to the other. If you are enforcing a punishment for a rule you don’t have at your house, is that okay with you?
Consider if you want to include scenarios such as this in the parenting plan. If it changes based on circumstances, you may want to leave this out. However, keep in mind that consistency between the two homes can make a tremendous difference in the child’s life!
Pickups, Drop-offs, Transportation, and Tardiness
Be sure to have this category fully worked out in the parenting plan.
Who is responsible for pickups? Can someone other than the parent participate in transporting the child (stepmom or grandparents, for example)?
You need a dedicated location – a middle spot between the two houses or a police department for high-conflict situations.
You also need specific times. Include how long either parent should wait for the other and what happens if they are a no-show.
Long distance transportation
If you are transporting the kids over long distances, specify who is responsible for the price.
Also consider what happens if that parent can’t afford the price of the plane ticket, gas, etc.
The more detail you can include in this section the easier your life will be.
This one is simple but important. Who claims the kid(s) on taxes? Take in to account child support. The parent paying child support may be entitled to more tax credits.
Be specific about which years the parent will claim them. For example, Father claims the child every other year starting in [this year].
Emergency Contact Lists
Include statements regarding emergency contact lists, who can be on them, and who can change them.
You have a few options here:
A) Both parents agree on every person put on the contact list. I DO NOT recommend this unless it is a smaller pre-determine list of possibilities (parents, stepparents, grandparents, etc).
B) Each parent is allowed to have their list of emergency contacts and the other parent is not allowed to remove anyone from it. In high-conflict situations, this may be the way to go. But remember, it is a two-way street. You have the ability to decide for yourself, but so do they.
The primary question for school is, where will they attend? As a general rule, one of the parent’s address is determined to be the official address for schooling purposes.
Removing from school
Discuss who can remove the kids from school and for what reason. Can it only be a parent? And does it have to be for sickness?
Or what about an extra long weekend?
Be specific if you are concerned about attendance issues.
This is mostly relevant if you have younger children. Consider if both parents can visit the children at school, if other family can visit, and when they can visit.
I would not recommend adding any language that keeps a parent from visiting the school whenever they feel necessary. However, you might include step-parents and other family members on a list of approved visitors.
Ironically, this one can get pretty complicated. I’m going to put a list of questions below. Make sure to consider these when including extra curricular activities in the parenting plan.
- Who is responsible for paying?
- What happens if one parent can no longer afford the payment?
- Can they be signed up for activities that will impact a parent’s time?
- Do both parents have to agree on the activities?
- For longer distances – which location will the activities be located in?
- Can the child be removed from the activity for any reason (bad grades, etc)?
- Can practices or activities be missed for any reason?
Get as detailed as you think necessary here.
As the kids get older, these become a much bigger part of your life. They also generally cross parenting time, so you want to have as many areas of conflict ironed out as possible!
Ah, the daily phone call. These are the bain of parents the world over!
Yes, they are likely going to be used against you. And yes the kids are going to be distracted and not want to talk. And yes it’s going to piss you off every. single. time.
But the alternative is that you don’t get to talk to the kids while they are with the other parent. You can’t say “Hi, I love you.”
So you are going to put up with it every. single. time. because the alternative is worse.
These calls should be required on days when you do not see the children. You can set a specific time or say “reasonable time”. If you want a max time-limit, you can say “no more than 30 minutes” or any other variation.
Both parents should be required to ensure the calls happen. Unless you have a valid reason otherwise, they should also be un-monitored.
Basically, you are going to be so frustrated by these calls, but the alternative is worse.
Vehicles, Gas, and Insurance
If you have young kids, it’s easy to overlook this as being ‘too far in the future’. But it’s an eventuality that can’t be ignored, so go ahead and include it.
You can include provisions that require both parents or a single parent to fund these items. Or neither parent and kids’ are solely responsible.
You may also consider including the access to these items in ‘joint decision making.’
Think it through as best you can so you aren’t stuck with an ineffective situation when your children are teenagers!
Dispute resolution is almost ‘boilerplate’ language for most parenting plans. In other words, your local court system might have standard language that is included in all plans.
If they don’t, consider how parenting disputes will be resolved. Most of the time, mediation is considered the reasonable first step.
When A Child Wants To Stay With The Other Parent
Imagine the scenario: your daughter/step-daughter gets grounded for something. She gets mad and says, “I’m going to stay with [other parent].”
Your acceptance of this scenario should not be based on which parent has done the grounding. If she comes to you and says, “I was grounded for this. I’m staying here” the answer should be “No you’re not.” And you should expect the same from your co-parent.
Parenting plans should be written to expect both parents to uphold the schedule unless it is by mutual agreement. Raising teenagers is HARD! Don’t allow them to manipulate the situation by playing you and your co-parent against each other.
A Do and a Don’t for parenting plans
Do Allow For Times You Don’t Agree
Of all things you can have in your parenting plan, vagueness will cause you the most heartache.
It opens the door for arguments, areas of disagreement, and problems for the rest of your co-parenting relationship.
If it’s important enough to be in the plan, it’s important enough to be specific.
Don’t Be Too Restrictive
This is interesting advice given that I just outlined a ton of different ways you should restrict your life in a court ordered document.
Try not to put in more than is necessary. You can plan for the future while still allowing life to happen. Try to find a happy medium.
Pulling it all together
Parenting plans, custody agreements, whatever you call them can have a huge impact on your life for many years.
Make sure to put a lot of thought into what yours includes.
And even if you and your co-parent get along right now, it is still a good idea to form the document together and submit it to the court. It is very comforting to have a document to fall back in, just in case.
If you’re in a high-conflict (or even moderate conflict) situation, look for a mediator who specializes in family dynamics. They can save you a lot of frustration!
Above all else, keep your kids in the forefront of your mind and love them to the best of your ability. The co-parenting relationship will develop over time and a good parenting plan will help reduce conflict.
Don’t forget it. Pin it!