After a divorce, you'll face many new challenges as you and your ex-spouse continue to raise a child together while building your separate lives. As part of your divorce settlement, you'll be expected to create a child custody plan (also known as a co-parenting plan) that must be reviewed and approved by the family court. What does a co-parenting plan look like? What should be in it, and what should you keep in mind as you begin to build your plan?
How to Develop a Child Custody Plan
You can create your child custody plan in one of two ways. The first way is to work with your spouse to create a plan that everyone can live with. This option will likely require patience and compromise on your part. You may not get everything you wish, including all the parenting time you want, but at least you'll stay out of court.
If you and your spouse cannot create a child custody plan on your own, then you will have to go to court and present your case to a family law judge. This option will be expensive, stressful, and slow. If you are not able to afford a lawyer, the court may assign you to work with a family law facilitator.
What Goes into a Child Custody Plan?
In a nutshell, your child custody plan should lay out all the details of how you and your spouse will share the guardianship of your children and make major decisions on their behalf. Your plan should be customized to the realities of your family, including the ages of your children, their personalities, your work and social schedules, how far you live from each other, etc.
Typically, a child custody plan includes:
Legal Custody Arrangement
Will you both share legal custody, which means you are both responsible for the welfare and upbringing of your children or does one parent have sole legal custody? Sole custody means that one parent has legal authority over the children and may make medical decisions for the children, raise them in a certain religion, allow them to participate in certain extracurricular activities, and more.
Physical Custody Arrangement
What will the living arrangement of the children be? Will both parents share joint physical custody, meaning the children live with each parent, or will the children live full time with one parent who retains sole physical custody? In a joint custody situation, which parent will serve as the primary caregiver for the children?
If the parents share joint custody of the children, what will the children's living arrangements look like? In this section, you'll clarify your parenting time schedule. Some parents agree to a 50/50 parenting schedule where the children live with each parent for an equal amount of time. Other parents prefer that the children have a “home base” where they live most of the time. This parenting time schedule may look more like a 70/30 custody arrangement, or even an 80/20 arrangement.
Some of the more popular custody schedules include:
2-2-3 Rotation: The children stay with Parent A for two days then stay with Parent B for the next two days, then return to Parent A for a three-day weekend.
2-2-5-5 Rotation: The children stay with Parent A for two days then stay with Parent B for two days, then stay with Parent A for five days followed by five days with Parent B.
3-3-4-4 Rotation: The children stay with Parent A for three days then stay with Parent B for three days. They then go back to Parent A for four days and then Parent B for four days.
The custody schedule should address school schedules, school breaks, vacations, and holidays.
Medical and Healthcare Decisions
If the parents share joint legal custody of the children, how will the parents make medical decisions on behalf of the children? Who will take a sick child to the doctor or make dentist appointments, and who will cover the costs of medical care? These facts should be included in the child custody plan.
Most parents have their own parenting style as well as strong opinions on how they would like to raise their children. Parents can add specific parenting stipulations to their child custody plan, such as how to discipline children, extracurricular activities the children can or cannot join, whether parents can drink or use tobacco in front of children, etc. Even something as small as a specific bedtime routine can be added if it is important to one or both parents. Some parents also add a prohibition against speaking negatively about the other parent or trying to turn the children against the other parent.
In this section, the parents should specify which school the children will attend, who will pay for schooling if the children attend a private school, who will drop off and pick up the children, and what school activities the children can or can't attend. This is also a good spot to lay out a college savings plan. If your children are young, this section can also lay out child care plans and who will pay for child care costs.
How will the parents communicate with one another about the child custody plan? Your parenting plan should include what types of decisions will require approval from the other parent as well as what form of communication you will use. Will a parent need to notify the other parent about certain things, such as a planned vacation with the children, signing them up for a new activity, or introducing them to a new partner? How much notice should a parent give if they can't care for the children during their designated days, want to switch holidays, or want to take the children on a trip?
These details may seem nitpicky at first, but a healthy co-parenting relationship is often built on good communication habits.
What happens if a parent wishes to move closer to family or needs to relocate for a job?
Child Support and Taxes
In this section, you'll need to figure out which parent will be paying child support and what formula will be used to determine the amount of child support. If you are the parent paying child support, it's a good idea to include language that allows you to lower your child support responsibility if you should lose your job or face surprise expenses, like large medical bills. In this section, you can also mention which parent will include the children on their taxes.
Changes to the Child Custody Plan
Explain how revisions can be made to the child custody plan. Does a parent need to request a change in writing? How long does the other parent have to review the change? What happens if the parents disagree on the change?
If one or both of the parents are in the military, it's a good idea to include military provisions in the child custody agreement. These provisions may cover what happens to the plan when a parent is deployed or when a parent is relocated.
Every family and parenting situation is different. If you have a special concern, you can put it in the child custody plan as long as your spouse agrees. In this section, you can, for example, require that your spouse give your child a specific religious upbringing, grant your family members the ability to take the children on your behalf, or anything else. Just keep in mind that a judge will need to review and approve your custody plan before it becomes legal whether you come to an agreement outside of court or with the support of a court.
Does your child have special needs, like a medical or emotional condition? In this section, add any special considerations, like how often medication should be given or what accommodations should be available in each parent's home.
Amending Your Child Custody Agreement
In all likelihood, your agreement will need to change as your situation changes and as your children grow. Younger children, for instance, often do better when they see their parents more often, but older kids may prefer to live primarily with one parent. In other cases, a parent may need to relocate for a job or family emergency, which will mean changing up the custody schedule.
Stay flexible and include provisions on how to revise and update the co-parenting plan. If you need to revise the plan but can't agree on revisions with your spouse, you may end up in court again.
Keep Your Children in Mind
The most important piece of advice to keep in mind when developing your child custody plan is to always put the needs of your children first. A well-designed parenting plan will protect your children from conflict as much as possible. Think about what will help them get the love, support, and stability they need to thrive. If your children are older, it may be a good idea to invite them to participate in the planning process.
For the sake of your children, try to offer your spouse respect and understanding so that the two of you can work together, not against each other, in raising your children. Looking for more divorce advice? Find out more at our Next Second Saturday Workshop