What Is A Parenting Plan?

Parenting Plans Establish GuidelinesDuring divorce proceedings, most parents have their children’s welfare at the forefront of their minds, but sometimes the emotions involved in divorce cases make it hard for parents to think objectively about the day-to-day care and needs of their children. This is where child custody agreements, or parenting plans, become invaluable.

Parenting plans spell out in great detail how children will be cared for, the amount and type of visitation each parent will receive and how parents will jointly make decisions about the care and upbringing of their children. These plans can help families avoid future conflicts or litigation by providing specific guidelines about the responsibilities of each parent for their child(ren).

Although parenting plans are not mandatory in New York State, they are extremely helpful at maintaining civility during emotionally trying divorce cases and ensuring that the needs of the children are met. It is easy to think about how major holidays will be shared. It is less easy to plan for the day-to-day care of children, such as getting them to and from school or doctor’s appointments. Parenting plans help parents establish guidelines for these every day needs.

Why Are Parenting Plans Important?

Although the marriage may be over, the couple’s job as parents isn’t. Parenting plans take some of the emotions out of making child-rearing decisions in the midst of a divorce and can help parents think objectively about the short- and long-term care of their children. The ultimate goal of a parenting plan is to guide parents through the custody process and set agreements in place that will avoid the need for future litigation.

There are a great many details to consider when divorcing. Think of a parenting plan as a roadmap for how divorced parents will handle their children’s day-to-day needs and schedules as well as special events and holidays. Parenting plans provide a guide for parents to follow related to the day-to-day care of their children including daily, weekly and holiday visitations as well as care during vacations and school holidays. Parenting plans are also often used to address extenuating circumstances like child abuse or substance abuse.

There is no set parenting plan or custody agreement that all parents must follow. Each plan is unique and should address the special needs of the family it is designed to guide, but it is important for parents to be involved in the creation of their parenting plan because if they do not contribute to the plan themselves, the court will do it for them, which may end up not being ideal for the parents or the children.

Getting Started With A Parenting Plan

In most divorce cases, each parent will be given an opportunity to create their own parenting plan as part of the preliminary conference order. The order will set forth guidelines about when the plans must be submitted if custody is not agreed to ahead of time. Once those plans are presented to the judge/referee, he or she will review them and iron out inconsistencies and details that may have been overlooked by the parents.

Parents do not have to operate in a vacuum when developing their parenting plan. The divorce lawyers involved in the case should be able to advise and guide the parents in the development of their plan. Parents can also access sample plans from the State of New York at http://www.courts.state.ny.us/forms/matrimonial/Parenting-Plan-Form.pdf and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers at http://www.familylawfla.org/pdfs/AAML_Parenting_Plan.pdf.

Keep in mind, these are only sample plans. They can and should be adapted to meet your family’s specific needs. A good parenting plan will plan for as many contingencies as possible and provide guidelines that the family can adhere to, but it cannot provide for every situation. This is one reason why parents are advised to revisit and adjust their parenting plan annually.

Annual evaluations of the plan will help families adjust to the changing needs of the children and the parents’ living or work situations. As children get older, their needs change and should be reflected in the plan. Or there may come a time when one or both parents decided to remarry. When this happens, the original parenting plan will probably need to be adjusted.

What Can Be Included In A Parenting Plan?

Anything related to the short and long term care of the children can be included in a parenting plan. It’s important to try to deal with conflicts ahead of time, such as when a holiday falls on a school vacation day or what to do about make-up visits if one parent misses a scheduled visitation.

Other issues often covered in parenting plans include:

  • Parenting time, Visitation and Physical Custody
  • Legal Decision Making
  • Transportation and Exchanges
  • Parent Relocation – how far away can a parent move without the other parent’s consent?
  • Vacations and Travel – where and when children can vacation with each parent?
  • Grandparent Visitation
  • Special Needs Planning
  • Financial arrangements including child support, health insurance, child savings accounts, taxes, etc.
  • Holidays and School Breaks
  • Dispute Resolution, Mediation and/or Arbitration
  • Physical and Mental Healthcare
  • School Activities and functions
  • Communication and Decision-making

 

Although it is tempting to try to include every possible circumstance in the parenting plan, that is simply not a reasonable goal. The best approach is to use one of your lawyer’s standard parenting plan forms as a guideline, make changes, additions and deletions to it as you see fit and re-evaluate your plan every year to make sure it is still working for you.

About The Author


Jessica H. Ressler has been practicing exclusively matrimonial and family law for the past ten years in New York. She is a member of the panel for attorneys for children in Westchester and Putnam Counties. She appears regularly in the New York Family and Supreme Courts representing both adults and children.