Parents who are separating often do not know what to include in a parenting plan, or if they need a parenting plan at all. There is a lot to consider and every situation is unique. However, there are guidelines to consider when creating a parenting plan that can help make the divorce or separation easier for the children involved—and the parents as well.

Navigating and Establishing a Parenting Plan

First, what is a parenting plan? Don’t worry if you are not quite sure.

Think of a parenting plan as a written agreement which is formalized and filed with the court. A parenting plan can also be an order of the court which is issued without the agreement of the parents, often after a hearing on the issues.

The parenting plan should ideally outline a timeshare schedule for when the children will be with each parent, in addition to specifying provisions relating to legal and physical custody. Parents can arrive at a parenting  agreement themselves, through a mediator, or through litigation.

A parenting plan often includes how decisions are made with respect to the health, education, and welfare of the children. Not every parenting plan specifies what are called physical and legal child custody arrangements, however.

Most importantly, separated couples use a parenting plan to set expectations for themselves and their children. With it, they stay on the same page with co-parenting duties, thereby reducing uncertainty and anxiety for everyone involved—most importantly, the child.

Today, informal parenting plans can live digitally in one of dozens of great applications for co-parenting that are available. These applications help parents stay organized while keeping one-on-one communication at a minimum—perfect for parents who are prone to conflict. 

Be Ready to Work With the Other Parent

Initially, many parents file requests with the court without discussing anything with the other parent. Under normal circumstances, this is unadvisable.  

It’s important to get past the emotions involved with your separation. Think logically about how to care for the children now that parents are separated.

Take stock of where you agree and disagree with the other parent on co-parenting issues. Usually parents find that they are in agreement about certain aspects, in disagreement about others, and have some wiggle room in other areas.

Note every point of agreement, disagreement, and everything in between.

Expect the other parent to be involved. Family courts are designed to give parents an opportunity to create parenting plans that provide frequent and continuing contact with the children to both parents.  

Parents should, as much as possible, work on coming to an agreement on the details. As parents, you are often the best individuals situated to make decisions regarding the raising of your children. If you cannot agree, a court can step in and will make the order for you.  

Questions and Issues a Parenting Plan Should Address

In California, it is generally recognized that it is in the best interest of children for both parents to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents, absent a safety or welfare concern. Although each case is unique, in general, a parenting plan should provide provisions encouraging continuing contact, which may include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Both parents have full access to information about the children, including school records and medical records;
  • Both parents have reasonable phone contact with the children at all times; and
  • Parents should make available their contact information to each other.

Much of what is included in parenting plan involves logistics like pickups and drop-offs for school and other activities the children are involved in. One major consideration that the courts consider in crafting a parenting plan is the “status quo” which is what children’s lives looked like before their parents separated. For example:

  • Which parent is performing the majority of the care-taking responsibilities?
  • Where do the children attend school?
  • What are parents’ work schedules and how do they factor into the timeshare?
  • How will parents transport and engage in extracurricular activities and other commitments like church?
  • Who provides child care for the kids when parents are at work?

A parenting plan should also address specific questions and get into finer details about timeshare. These are unique to families but some universal details include:

  • How are holidays to be divided?
  • Is there a different schedule during school breaks?
  • How will parents divide vacation time with the children?
  • Specifics about transportation arrangements, like pickup and drop off times and locations.

The more detailed the agreement, generally, the better. This helps parents to provide consistency and avoids unnecessary litigation.  For example, details regarding how parents are to make decisions about the health, welfare and education of the children, such as the following, can help prevent uncertainty and litigation:

  • What types of decisions require written consent of the other parent?
  • Does this include travel out of state?
  • What types of decisions require a meaningful conversation between parents?

Be Flexible in Execution but Detailed in the Parenting Plan

Due to the emotions involved in a separation, it is not uncommon that co-parents fight about anything and everything. In a high conflict case, parenting plans can mitigate anticipated disagreements between parents. On the other hand, some parents co-parent effectively for the most part, and are on the same page. However, even in these situations spelling out co-parenting arrangements in detail in your parenting plan gives parents something to fall back on should conflicts arise—which they almost always do.

When co-parenting, it is good practice to be flexible and accommodating to the other parent whenever possible. Flexibility is good in practice, but when it comes to the language used in a parenting plan, it’s better to spell out as much as you can. In particular, spell out what to do in the event that disagreements cannot be resolved.

Say, for example, co-parents typically “play by ear” parenting schedules around Christmas time. Instead of using language that parents will “mutually agree” on Christmas schedule, anticipate a disagreement and add decision-making language to the parenting plan. For example: In the event that parents cannot agree on the Christmas Holiday, in even-numbered years for mom decides; odd years belong to dad.

It is easier to include detail in a parenting plan than it is to take disagreements to court. Every plan is different, but co-parents can expect an effective parenting plan to have enough detail to be 8-15 pages in length.

Memorialize a Parenting Plan into a Legally Binding Document

Having your parenting plan document memorialized and filed with the court makes it a legally binding contract. This entails preparing a document that spells out the arrangements that both parents agree upon, having both parents and respective attorneys sign it, and filing it with the court.

If you have a parenting plan and you do not formalize it into a court order, the plan is not an enforceable order.

Review and Update as Conditions Change

It is advisable that you refer back to parenting plans regularly. Children’s lives are constantly changing through the years—new schools, new activities, new jobs, etc.—and it’s important that your documented plan stays up to date and reflective of your life as it looks in the present day.    

Make sure to work with your attorney to memorialize and file the most up-to-date version of your parenting plan any time changes are made to the document.