Because we at SPARC are involved in divorce and custody issues, we've seen hundred upon hundreds of divorce agreements. Listed below are some of the most common mistakes and oversights related to parenting plans.
We also see divorced couples going back to court frequently for post-divorce litigation and mediation. Often, what brings them back are errors, omissions and oversights in their original parenting plans. Avoid repeated trips back to court by reading this article and following its advice.
Never allow general wording that deals with the parenting schedule ("visitation") to be included into your parenting plan. A classic example of this kind of wording is the use of term "liberal and frequent visitation". That term has no defined meaning in a court of law; the term means whatever the custodial parent says it means and is subject to change without notice. Fortunately most courts will not allow this kind of vague language to be used in a parenting plan these days, insisting instead on a well-defined schedule that spells out where the children will be, including holidays and special events (vacations, school breaks, etc). In short, NEVER agree to a parenting plan that doesn't spell out the visitation schedule in thorough detail (days, times, alternate plans, provisions for missed time, etc).
Always include detailed wording to cover restrictions or permissions dealing with residential moves by the custodial parent. Move-away disputes are among the most hotly-contested post divorce issues brought to family court, and almost always an issue that a well-written parenting plan could help resolve (or prevent). In recent years courts have moved toward more restrictions on custodial parent move-aways, but still allow them in a wide range of cases.
Always include specific wording that permits access to the children's medical and educational records. Although many States now have statutes that address these issues, non-custodial parents still frequently encounter difficulty in obtaining records from local school systems and doctors. For access to educational records, rely on FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) to enforce your right of access.
Always include a section that sets clear rules for travel to out-of-country destinations as well as for domestic travel in general (i.e. air travel, railway, etc). This isn't a common source of trouble, but for couples who travel abroad frequently, who are from different countries, or who have different citizenship statuses, this is definitely an important item to clarify.
Plan ahead for juvenile- and young-adult medical treatments such as orthodontics (braces), eye care (glasses, contacts, or other vision correcting treatments such as LASIK). Special needs children may require extended surgical treatments, physical therapy, or medication. Include detailed directives that cover how the costs of these items or procedures will be split between parents.
Unemployment is a fact of life and both parents should take this into account in the parenting plan. Parenting plans should always include a section that covers items such as suspension of child support or medical insurance and possible changes in parenting schedules during periods of unemployment.
Like unemployment, disability can occur at any time and usually comes with little or no warning. Parenting plans should always include wording that deals with the effects of both temporary and permanent disability. The consequences of temporary or permanent disability should be taken into account in terms of child support, medical insurance, and the parenting time schedule itself. For example, a severe disability may prevent a parent from adequately caring for a child during their parenting time.
If practical, always include a provision for the Right Of First Refusal (ROFR). This stipulates that if one parent is unable to care for the child (for example, on a night out or travel), the other parent will have the right to care for the child. More information on ROFR can be found here: Right Of First Refusal (ROFR). The clause for Right Of First Refusal may not be practical if the parents are geographically distant or live in different states.
Specify conditions for telephone, mail, and email contact. In general children should be allowed contact with both parents by any reasonable means. Today this means email, chat, instant messaging, text messaging as well as by phone and other traditional means of communication.
Plan ahead for disputes. The vast majority of divorced parents will disagree on a variety of issues, both minor and major. We strongly recommend that mediation be specified as a first step instead of court. Mediation acts as a 'buffer zone' for disputes in family court, settling many of them faster and at less cost than a court will. If mediation is unsuccessful, specific issue can be moved to family court for resolution. Always specify who is to pay for mediation (usually the "moving party", but this can vary).
Although some states automatically do periodic reviews of child support amounts, many still do not. Your parenting plan should contain stipulations or conditions that specify periodic reviews for modification of the child support (both upward or downward). Typical periods in most states are every two years, and most will not consider a modification if the difference in support isn't a specific value (i.e. $100 increase or decrease).
Include a provision that covers things like piercing, tattoos, or other "body modification" changes. In general, both parents should be allowed have a say in any permanent elective changes to a minor child's physical condition. Historically this was rarely an issue, but this is now a frequent cause of disputes between parents as tattoos and piercings become more "mainstream".
Your parenting plan should always include stipulations dealing with changes in the parenting time schedule as the child gets older. It's not possible to predict what direction events, including children's choices and desires will take. Teenagers may want to spend more or, perhaps less) time with either parent as they get older and develop a sense of self. Often a child will want to try living with the non-custodial parent as they enter their teens. To help ease these changes here should be guidelines for managing potential schedule changes.
A comprehensive parenting plan will also include guidelines for managing future educational choices, including college or trade/technical schooling. There should be a clear explanation of how the costs will be split.
Similar to educational choices, parenting plans should cover religious education and practice. This is often not an issue, but for parents who practice different religions this can be an important point to spell out.
The Schedule Is The Single Most Important Issue Visitation (parenting time) is almost always the single most contested issue for both parents. More parents return to court for visitation-related matters than anything else, which is why it's critical to have the parenting schedule spelled out clearly and in detail. By having a clear, unambiguous schedule to refer to parents can avoid wasting large amounts of both time and money in the future.
Benefits To The Children Having a well-defined parenting schedule also provides the children with the stability of a consistent routine (this is especially important for infants, toddlers, and younger children). Older children can cope with schedule changes more easily (and may in fact, participate in them). It also ensures that the children will see each parent regularly, and often helps to reduce conflict between the parents (which benefits to everyone).
Changing The Parenting Plan If the parenting plan is found to be truly unworkable, we recommend that the parents try to draft a new plan together that resolves the issues they disagree over. Obviously this isn't always possible- if the parents could collaborate this closely to begin with, the divorce might not have occurred in the first place. But, it's always worth a try. If the other parent is simply not willing to collaborate on a new parenting plan, consider obtaining a well-drafted parenting plan, modify it to fit your circumstances, and go from there. (We recommend the parenting plans from parentingplan.net. The feedback we've received indicates they're both comprehensive and affordable.)
How Detailed Should A Parenting Plan Be? A question we often hear in discussion of parenting plans is "How long should a parenting plan be?" The answer is "Long enough to cover all (yes, all) the issues you're likely to encounter until your children are grown." Realistically, in sheer page count, this often works out to a parenting plan that is 20 to 30 pages in length, possibly more depending on circumstances. A 5-page parenting plan simply cannot cover everything that you're going to run across in the next 5 or 10 years.
Talk To Others About Your Parenting Plan We highly recommend discussing your proposed parenting plan with others who've dealt with both good and bad parenting plans. The advice they have can be invaluable- chances are they've made mistakes you can avoid by drafting a good plan the first time. Many, many parents will tell you something like, "If I'd only known that would be a problem..." The take-away here is to learn what others have gone through and benefit from it.
Don't Rush Through Your Parenting Plan Sometimes parents rush through the parenting plan part of the divorce and agree to things they later regret. Sometimes it's because they don't understand the long-term implications, sometimes it's because they think that they can work things out later, and sometimes they just want to be done with the whole, stressful mess. Our advice is to take your time and make sure that you end up with a plan you can live with and abide by. Don't agree to any stipulation in the hope that you can ignore it later or because it doesn't seem important now. It'll seem important later, when it's much, much more difficult to do anything about it.
Making Your Own Parenting Plan After years and years of reading discussions about parenting plans and seeing both the good and the bad, we don't recommend trying to write your own plan from scratch. We used to, but not any more. In fact, we caution you not to try and draft a "homegrown" parenting plan. You will almost certainly make numerous, serious mistakes, including forgetting to specify important provisions (many of which will never have even occurred to you). These mistakes will dog you for years and may end up costing you valuable time with your children as well as a great deal of money spent on attorneys fees.
Get It Right The First Time Remember, you're going to have to live with the provisions in your parenting plan for years and years to come- it's important to get it right the first time. As mentioned above, we highly recommend the parenting plans available from ParentingPlan.net. Their Parenting Plan Kit includes ten (10) complete parenting plans, including Standard, Shared, Comprehensive Sole Custody, Military Service Plan, an Interstate / Long-Distance plan, a Supervised 4-Phase Visitation Plan, and several others. They're available at a fraction of what an attorney would charge and are much more detailed than the "boilerplate" plans that most of them provide