Parenting Agreements

Parenting agreements or parenting plans describe how you will care for your children after the divorce. These plans come in as many variations as there are creative parents to develop them. If parents can work together to come up with a reasonable parenting plan, a judge will typically defer to the judgment of the parents and not alter the plan. Parents working together can formulate flexible, creative, and comfortable schedules that will work best for their children. However, when parents can't agree and courts are forced to make parenting decisions, they often follow traditional patterns that do not allow for much flexibility or creativity. Courts do not do much creative work. Their job is to resolve disputes, not try to second-guess parents in conflict.

Understanding Custody

There are two separate aspects of custody, physical and legal. Physical custody refers to the actual time a child spends with each parent. Legal custody refers to major decision making about your children, including their education, religion, and health care. Decisions about where the children will go to school, what church they will attend, and who will provide medical and dental care are some examples of legal decisions. Whether your children wear braces, play soccer, or have certain friends are also examples of legal decisions.

You don't have to like your ex-spouse, but for the children's sake, try to show respect for her. It is always in the best interests of your children when you and your spouse can get along and present a united front.

If you do not have some form of legal custody, you will not be able to make decisions about your children's activities and future. You will have to submit and comply with the decisions made by the parent who does have legal custody. If you are a parent who is denied custody, make sure you ask for the right to have access to medical and educational records. Although this doesn't give you the ability to make decisions, it will allow you to monitor your child's progress.

At some point in the future, you may want to try to regain legal custody, and it will be important for you to demonstrate that you have taken an interest in your child's life. Sometimes, a court will give one parent sole legal custody but require that parent to solicit and consider the input of the other parent prior to making decisions. Regardless of your parenting agreement or what is ordered by the court, co-parenting cooperatively will be a lot easier if you can maintain a respectful relationship.

From one jurisdiction to another, courts use varying terms to describe custodial relationships between parents. There are typically seven ways custody is described.

  • Sole custody: This means that one parent has both legal and physical custody.

  • Joint or shared custody: This means that the parents share equally in both legal and physical custody.

  • Sole legal custody: This means that one parent makes all major decisions about the children.

  • Joint or shared legal custody: This means parents make major decisions about their children together.

  • Primary physical custody: This means the children live with one parent most or all of the time. The other parent may still have visitation.

  • Joint or shared physical custody: This means the children spend roughly half their time with each parent.

  • Joint or shared physical and legal custody: This means that parents make major decisions about their children together and the children spend roughly half their time with each parent.

Legal Custody

Parents with similar values usually can agree on major decisions for their children if they can put their hurt and anger aside and focus on the children. However, parents involved in major power struggles usually can't make these decisions together. Also, in families where domestic violence has occurred, most states' laws prohibit imposing joint legal custody on parents. Some states have a presumption in their laws that joint legal custody will be awarded, unless a good reason for sole legal custody exists. There are many good reasons why you might need to have sole legal custody. Courts have found that an award of sole legal custody is warranted where one parent is abusive, uninvolved, or absent, has untreated mental illness, or is addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Information about the Children

Most states' laws provide that both parents are entitled to information about their children unless a court has decided that it could endanger the child. Typically, parents have the right to know where the children go to school; where they worship; and the names of their doctor, dentist, and orthodontist. Both parents have the right to get school notices, attend parent-teacher conferences (not necessarily together), and participate in school activities. They are entitled to copies of their children's report cards. Both parents are entitled to see their children's medical and dental records and to talk to the health care providers. Information about the children might be withheld from an abusive or very angry parent who has made threats to take the children or has a history of interference with the children's care.

Allegations or evidence of abuse may cause the court to issue restraining orders that prevent the abusive parent from going to the child's home, school, or place of worship. However, in many cases even abusive parents are entitled to see their children's medical, school, and therapy records.

Developing a Workable Parenting Plan

If you are parents, developing a workable parenting plan is likely the most important part of your divorce. The children of divorce suffer the most serious and long-lasting consequences from conflict between their parents. Parents can do a much better job than the judge in putting together a workable parenting plan, because parents know, deep down, what's best for their children.

When parents work together, the children benefit. For example, the visiting parent is often unwilling to contribute funds over and above the court-ordered child support. However, research shows that when parents decide together to send kids to private schools or camp or music lessons, they often agree to share the costs of these enriching childhood experiences.

When parents can see past their anger, hurt, and pride, they can create a workable plan because they have all the facts. The judge almost never has all the facts. No matter how much you dislike or even hate your spouse, put it behind you for the sake of your children. Pick your battles. When you can, bite your tongue for the sake of coming to an agreement.

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