When a couple with children divorces they have to let the court know how they want to share the responsibility for, decision-making about and time with the children. California policy states that children benefit by having frequent and continuing contact with both parents. There are some exceptions to this general policy such as in cases of child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, or substance abuse, but most couples can expect that if they dispute custody and visitation in court, the court will order them to share their children
JOINT LEGAL CUSTODY
First, they will have to decide how to make decisions regarding the health, education and welfare of their children. This involves such decisions as which pediatrician they see, what school they attend, what religion (if any) they practice and when or if to get braces on their teeth. Generally, parents share equally in these decisions. This is referred to as “Joint Legal Custody.” It means that before you change schools, doctors or dentists you should discuss with each other what is best for your child. Occasionally, when one parent is difficult to deal with on these issues, the court may give decision making to one parent. With Joint Legal Custody both parents have access to school and medical records for their children and can consult with any professional the children are seeing.
Second, the parents must develop a “parenting plan.” This is simply a schedule of when the children will be with Mom and when they will be with Dad. There are as many different parenting plans as there are families. This plan can be very general, such as “the children shall spend time with each parent as they mutually agree.” Or, it can be very detailed setting out just which days the children will be with each parent, how holidays shall be spent and when the children can go on vacation with each parent.
Parenting plans are not generally set in stone. They can change and evolve as the parents schedules change, the children get older and their needs change or when the parents come up with a better plan. Having a plan in writing is required in every divorce agreement when children are involved, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make special agreements to deviate from the plan as long as you both agree. Parenting plans often evolve over time as the parties figure out what works and what doesn’t. Permanent changes should be reduced to writing and filed with the court, just in case a problem comes up later.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN DEVELOPING A PARENT PLAN
- The ages and developmental stages of your children.
- The personality of each child. Does the child adapt well to change? Does the child need more structure?
- Who generally helps with homework?
- How do the parents work schedules mesh with school and daycare schedules? Younger children need to see parents more frequently and may not do well not seeing a parent for an entire week. Older children may prefer to spend one week at a time with each parent and not go back and forth during the week. You also may want to consider building in some one on one time with each child.
- Be creative, every family is different, make your parenting plan work for you and your children.
HELP FROM A COUNSELOR
A counselor can help you assess the developmental stages of your children and make suggestions regarding what is appropriate for your children.
Young children may need some help understanding the parenting plan schedule. Try setting up a calendar in the kitchen at each home and color coding it with stickers. Blue for Dad’s house, pink or green for Mom’s. Cross off each day as it passes. This gives the child a visual clue of when they will next see the other parent.
LONG DISTANCE VISITATION
Today many families live far apart from one another. Luckily, technology gives parents and children many ways to keep in touch whether they live across town, across the country or around the globe. These innovative ideas can be incorporated into your parenting plan. For example, each parent may have a computer with a camera, so that children may communicate with the other parent and see each other while they talk. Some long distance parents use this technique to read to their children, help with homework or show off new toys, clothes or pets. With e-mail, faxes, scanners, and computers with cameras, keeping in touch with your children is easier than ever. The parenting plan can contain a schedule for visitation by computer, e-mail or chat room.
Work together, be flexible and consider the needs of your children and you can create a custom parenting plan that really works for your family!