What is a Parenting Plan?

When a divorce involves children, there are many options for how to address shared parenting (we prefer to avoid the legal term “custody” since that implies ownership).

As we discuss in the Custody - Defined overview, there are situations when a parent may choose to pursue sole legal and/or sole physical custody that require the inclusion of the court and legal professionals to address. The path to obtain sole legal and/or physical custody varies based on the applicable county in which you and your spouse reside, so please consult your local professionals.

However, when a situation involves joint physical custody, it is ideal for parents to work together (and we know that can be difficult) to develop a parenting plan. We believe lawyers are necessary for aspects of your case that require the application of Family Law, but when it comes to your children, a child development expert can be a better fit (and far less expensive) to help you determine agreements and an age-appropriate schedule. There is no perfect plan. A plan for a 3-year old and a 13-year old will vary greatly. This is your family, and in most cases you are far better equipped to make decisions regarding your children’s well-being than a legal professional.

A parenting plan, sometimes referred to as a custody agreement or a visitation agreement, contains both the agreements between parents about how to care for the child, and a schedule. (See Parenting Plan – Defined, for more detail on these two components.)


Development of a Parenting Plan

1. Who develops it?

A child development expert is a therapist and/or a custody expert who mediates or facilitates the development of a parenting plan. Both parents meet together along with the expert, or when that is difficult they can often meet separately. The key is the joint effort to focus on a solution that puts the child first as opposed to using expensive lawyers to determine the week to week schedule, or worse, allow the court to dictate when you may see your child. The plan is guided by the expert, but ultimately agreed to by the parents; this requires compromise.

2. Who pays for it?

The cost to develop the plan is the hourly rate of the expert and is most frequently split between the two parents, though the percentage split can vary according to the financial ability of each parent.

3. How long does it take?

Every expert has his or her own methodology to address all of the co-parenting agreements and to reach a solution for the schedule, but the time and cost is mostly dictated by the ability of the parents to participate in the process and make agreements. Also, the complexity of the family – number of children, complexity of the family situation, etc. will dictate the timeframe. For some couples, this might just take a couple of sessions, and for others, it might take several sessions over several weeks or months. We suggest adopting a temporary schedule and agreements while developing a permanent schedule.

4. How do we determine an age appropriate schedule?

The development of a schedule for one or multiple children should always include age appropriate considerations. Consult with your parenting plan expert, or your local court to obtain the guidelines provided in your county. It is important to recognize that children of different ages have different needs and these will change, so a plan that accommodates the child’s needs, as opposed to the parents, and a plan that evolves as the children grow is always advisable.

5. How long will the plan stay in effect?

It is important to recognize that schedules will evolve and change according to the changing needs of the child and family. Families often try various schedules and agree to check in at intervals to adjust as necessary. Often schedules dramatically change during the summer or to accommodate holidays, family events, or a spouse’s work schedule. While neither parent wants to forego time with their child, the more flexible and fluid both parents allow the unfolding lifestyle to be, the more successful it will feel for everyone involved. We know this is easier said than done, but the only absolute truth in shared parenting matters is that nothing is ever set in stone.

6. What happens if we disagree about a schedule after we implement it?

It is common for one spouse to feel the schedule is successful while the other does not. The parenting plan should include a detailed agreement for how frequently the parents will agree to revisit the schedule and how to handle disagreements. It is common for parents to disagree over how well the children are doing and how well the schedule is working, so implementing a process in advance to evaluate and adjust eases that potential conflict.

7. Is this legal and binding?

The plan will become a legal and binding document once both parents sign and file it with the court.  It is typically filed along with the marriage settlement agreement or court orders that address the financial aspects of the divorce. 

8. Other than schedule, what else is in a parenting plan?

A parenting plan includes various agreements in an attempt to provide the child with consistency and to be certain the parents have a map to use when various situations occur. There are standard categories that should be covered, but it is also important for every family to recognize their unique family wants and needs and to customize it to include those. For more information and detail, see our article Parenting Plan – Defined and our sample plans, Sample Parenting Plan - Amicable and Sample Parenting Plan – Court ordered.


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