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Parenting Plan Provisions - How Rigid or Flexible should You Be?

When drafting a parenting plan for separated parents of minor children, there are some basic things that should be in every plan.  These include answering the following questions:
  • Who has decision making responsibility (also known as legal custody)?
  • Who has residential responsibility and when? In other words, design a base parenting schedule (also known as physical custody).
  • When can the base schedule be changed? For example including a holiday and vacation schedule.
  • Are there any necessary agreements around communication?
  • Are there any limitations or notification requirements related to travel with the children?
  • How and when can the schedule be changed?
  • What other events require notification (such as illness of a child)?
  • What is your plan for dealing with disagreements?
Some parenting plans keep these terms relatively simple and leave a lot of room for flexibility between the parents.  There are pros and cons to any choice when drafting an agreement, and a flexible or vague agreement has risks and benefits.  One benefit is that it allows the parents to make decisions easily when life changes, without locking them into a schedule that might not work as their children grow.  It also encourages the parents to communicate about the children.

However, there are risks to a flexible plan as well.  If the parents have a lot of conflict, or find it difficult to communicate, then they may not be able to make decisions when the plan is not specific enough.  A more structured plan has the advantage of including a default schedule to fall back on when there is a disagreement.  In addition, while a structured and very specific plan can take longer to negotiate, it can help avoid future conflict.  For young or anxious children a specific schedule can also provide comfort that there is a clear plan for moving forward.

It's important to consider how specific your parenting schedule and communication guidelines should be based on the level of conflict in your case and the ages and needs of your children.  This is a good area to obtain advice from a child development specialist or an experienced family law attorney if you're not sure what to do.  You can use resources online to help you evaluate options, such as the Parenting Plan Worksheet available on the Skylark Law & Mediation website.

In addition to these basic considerations, it can also be helpful to consider provisions that address areas of potential future conflict, or any circumstances unique to your family.  This might include provisions surrounding:
  • Introduction of children to new significant others;
  • International travel and passports;
  • Preventative or elective medical or dental care, immunizations, and body modifications;
  • Children's use of technology;
  • Use of children's images;
  • Religious education
  • Disciplinary differences;
  • Safety provisions related to activities of children;
  • Defining the potential guardians of the children if both parents are deceased or incapacitated; and
  • A safety plan for parenting time if either parent has a history of abuse, substance abuse, or other condition that endangers the health or safety of the children.
If you're not sure how to address these provisions consider working with professionals and obtaining resources that provide sample agreements.  Gray Jay Endeavors, LLC has provided a comprehensive free Memorandum of Understanding form available for download here in a simple fillable format.  Full Separation Agreement templates, or specific schedules, can also be purchased from Gray Jay here.   The Agreement templates include sample provisions for all of the above listed parenting plan parts (both the basic and more unique portions).

If something is not addressed in your parenting plan you might be waiving your rights to it in the future, or setting up yourself up for future conflict in co-parenting.  To avoid these issues, you want to ensure that your agreement covers all the typical provisions and anything unique to your family.

We will continue to address these potential drafting issues in our upcoming blog series on Separation Agreements, including the following articles specific to parenting plan provisions:
  • Introducing new Significant Others to Children (and other difficult agreements to discuss);
  • The Intersection of Technology and Parenting Plans.

This is the second article in our series on Divorce Agreement drafting.

For the last article click here: What is the difference between a Memorandum of Understanding and a Divorce Agreement?

Check back for our next article: Introducing new Significant Others to Children (and other difficult agreements to discuss)

For more useful resources try these links:

Download a free Agreement Checklist

Download a free Memorandum of Understanding

Buy a Divorce Agreement Template

We hope you find these resources useful.  While our focus is on Massachusetts agreements, many of these tips will apply in other states as well.

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