This page includes general information on the creation of parenting plans that work.

The information on this page is not legal advice. The creation of a comprehensive parenting plan can be very difficult, and the assistance of an attorney experienced in the state with jurisdiction over your case may be the difference between a good, workable plan and one that you soon find you just cannot live with.

Parenting Plans That Work

Parents who work together to develop a mutually acceptable plan for parenting their children after divorce can avoid the battles that damage and scar children in an otherwise adversarial process. By working together, parents are better able to include their children in the decision-making process in a way that is healthy and empowering. Children benefit when they can express their feelings, from having a sense that they have a say in their lives and from the knowledge that their parents are listening to them. Only a cooperative atmosphere between their parents allows children the freedom to contribute to the decisions that affect their lives.

Cooperation between parents increases mutual decision-making, and the decreased hostility creates a manifestly healthier environment for the children. Children are less likely to feel conflicted in feelings of divided loyalty and to suffer stress if their parents never do battle. Most important, parents are usually much more satisfied with and willing to follow an agreed upon parenting plan, and this improved satisfaction often leads to an increasingly cooperative relationship between the parents as time passes.

Creating a comprehensive common sense parenting plan is worth the investment, especially in comparison to the alternative of litigation. And, though parenting plans are often quite structured and appear overly complicated (specifying the day-to-day time share of the children, as well as specifying holiday, vacation, and other special family time) there is help available to quickly and easily develop parenting plans that work.

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How to Begin Developing a Parenting Plan

All child custody and visitation agreements and orders are divided into two sections, provisions related to legal custody and those related physical custody. Of the two, physical custody, in whose home the children actually live and how much time the children spend with each parent, is the most important aspect to the parents and, consequently, the most contentious and litigated.

That is the reason that well thought out and carefully considered parenting plans are worth their wight in gold. A good parenting plan will not only avoid friction between the parent in the future, it may even keep them out of court. But where does one begin?

Parenting plans contain a hierarchy of three basic components, a basic cycle (the regular routine), vacations, and holidays and special events. Vacations outplace the basic cycle and holidays and special events outplace all other time.

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The Basic Cycle

The basic cycle is the regular routine that the parent's most commonly follow in exchanging the children. The basis cycle can start over and repeat every week, every two weeks, every month, or any other time period that is best under the circumstances. Although the most common regular routine is based on a two-week cycle, if one parent has a history of not exchanging the children as agreed or ordered, and if it may be necessary to use law enforcement for the return of the children, a monthly cycle is strongly suggested (if law enforcement can't tell whose parenting time it is, they will not help).

While it would be impossible to describe every parenting plan variation, here are a few of the most common:

Week based cycles:

Month based cycles:

Special Note: To prevent confusion about when the first weekend is, the first weekend should be defined, such as "the first weekend of the month is the first weekend with a Saturday."

The best parenting plans are adapted to the schedules of the parents and take into account the needs and activities of the children. If one parent has weekends off from work and the other does not, then each parent could have the children on the days that parent is not working. If the children regularly have a sporting event on a day that one parent cannot transport, then the children could be with the other parent. And, so on.

Methods of describing cycles: There are two philosophies to describing the regular routine, both of which are concerned about not creating a "hole" in the parenting plan (a time when you can't tell who the children are to be with). If a plan says that one parent will have the children from after school Monday to return to school Wednesday and the other parent will have the children from after school Wednesday until return to school Monday, there are "holes" because no one has the children during school hours on either Monday or Wednesday.

An easy way to prevent holes is to describe one parent’s time with the children and then simply say "the children will be with the other parent at all other times." When there is clearly a low-time and high-time parent, this is usually acceptable. But, when the children are with each parent about equal time, the parent whose time with the children is being described usually complains; both parents generally want "all other times" with the children.

Another way to avoid holes is to describe the time of both parents with the children in a point-to-point manner. A simple example: the children will be with Adam from the end of school Monday to the end of school Wednesday, then with Eve from that time to the end of school Monday, when the cycle starts over and repeats. In this description, the end of one parent's time is the start of the other’s, until the repeat.

Here’s the rub, with point-to-point descriptions there will never be a hole. But, if there are a lot of exchanges, describing a point-to-point parenting plan can be lengthy and impossible to easily understand. A comparison of the two methods in describing alternating weekends with two midweek evenings will illustrate the tradeoff between the risk of a hole and being able to understand what the plan says:

1.    Point-to Point:   The children will be with Adam from Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m., then with Eve until Thursday at 3:00 p.m., then with Adam until 6:00 p.m., then with Eve until Saturday at 9:00 a.m., then with Adam until Sunday at 6:00 p.m., then with Eve until Tuesday at 3:00 p.m., then with Adam until 6:00 p.m., then with Eve until Thursday at 3:00 p.m., then with Adam until 6:00 p.m., then with Eve until Tuesday at 3:00 p.m., when the two-week cycle starts over and repeats.

2.    By Parental Time:   The children will be with Adam every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00 p.m. until 6:00 p.m., and alternating weekends from Saturday at 9:00 a.m. until Sunday at 6:00 p.m.; Eve will have the children at all other times.

Both methods describe this:

Alternating Weekends with Midweeks

Which description is easier to understand, the description by "parental time." Which is more likely to accidentally leave a hole, also the "parental time" description. The decision to use point-to-point or parental time is a tradeoff, the possibility of holes against ease of understanding. But, there is another tool. If a parenting plan is too difficult to understand when described in words, include a graphical representation.

Once parents have been able to agree upon a basic cycle, the hard part is almost always done.

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Adding Vacations

When vacations are mentioned, two different types come to mind. The first is the vacation from work, the second is the time children are out of school (usually over the summer months). And, vacations within a parenting plan can describe either or both.

Vacations as time off from work: Annually, most parents have time off from work to vacation, and they usually want to have the children with them. Using two weeks for an example, work related vacations can be described in a parenting plan as simply as "each parent may take a vacation with the children of up to two weeks" or "each parent may take a vacation with the children of up to one week, twice per year."

When it is likely that conflicts will arise between the parents over who will have what vacation time with the children, a notification provision should be added. Most often, disputes over vacation time are resolved in the parenting plan by either alternating the years (odd and even) in which each parent gets first choice to pick their vacation time or by giving the parent who notifies the other first their choice of vacation time.

Vacations as time out of school: In many situations, the parenting arrangement during the school year takes into account factors such as homework, school activities, and travel time due to the distance between the homes of the parents and schools. But, the importance of these factors almost always goes away when the children are out of school, and a different regular routine may be desirable when school is not in session.

So, how are different in-school and out-of-school cycles blended? To keep consistency for the children and reduce the possibility of confusion for the parents, the first step when integrating different cycles is to identify a starting point (an exchange day, and time if possible) and a cycle repeat that is common to both cycles. Then, the in-school time is removed and the out-of-school time inserted, in full cycles.

Let’s see how it works, blending an alternating weekend in-school basic cycle (from Friday to Sunday) with an alternating week out-of-school cycle. Where the major in-school cycle exchange is Friday, the alternating week cycle should be adapted to that exchange day; both cycles will have a Friday exchange as the common point. The in-school time is removed in two-week blocks, and the out-of-school cycle in inserted.

Mixed vacations: Especially where a vacation from work exceeds one week, parents commonly wish to have a different out-of-school regular routine and traditional "vacation" time with the children. All that is required is for both to be included in the parenting plan.

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Holidays and Special Occassions

After the basic cycle, who will have the children on holidays and special occasions is the area of next greatest contention. Which holidays are appropriate for very young children? How should major holidays be divided? The list goes on.

What should be kept in mind is this, infants don't need holidays, parents do. But, as children grow, they participate in holiday events and enjoy that time more and more. And, a good parenting plan integrates this concept.

The best parenting plan will look at the holidays and special occasions to be observed as if the children are older, including how these events will be shared between the parents, then pared those events back to the current ages of the children, keeping the continuity of the long-term plan.

Take Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas for example. At different ages, working backward, these holidays might look like this:

What you should take away is that, as the children grow, which parent has the children in odd and even years remains constant, providing consistency for the children, and the parents.

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Putting the Parenting Plan Together

Now that the hard part is done, its time to put it all together. The sequence of the provisions is usually:

  1. Statement of legal custody.
  2. Additional legal custody provisions.
  3. Statement of physical custody (frequently omitted).
  4. Description of the parenting plan, including the basic cycle, vacations, and holidays and special occassions.
  5. Additional physical custody provisions.

So, what are these "additional" legal and physical custody provisions?

As parents consider the plethora of problems that could arise before the children reach adulthood, they should decide upon an appropriate balance between what needs to be ordered and what does not, realizing that asking for a specific provision may give the other parent the impression that they are not trusted or that the parent requesting the provision is trying to pull something over on them. Even so, the most common provisions that should at least be considered are listed below.

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Joint Custody Provisions

Joint Custody is where parents share the right to make important decisions for their children. Even then, however, specific orders are generally needed, and may say something like the following:

Besides the joint custody provisions listed above, sometimes there are other areas of dispute between the parents. Then, other orders may be needed to prevent conflict or resolve disputes.

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Legal Custody Provisions

Legal custody, which means who makes important decisions for your children (health care, education, and welfare), is usually the first consideration. Even if the parents will have joint legal custody of the minor children, the following provisions may help clarify what each parent can or can't do. Moreover, just discussing these topics may help identify other areas where the parents need to have specific agreements or orders.

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Physical Custody Provisions

Physical custody, which means in whose home your children actually live, is usually the area that, if inadequate, allows conflict between the parents to persist without either parent being able to effectively solve the problem. Usually, it is better to provide for a future problem than it is to hope it never arises. And, as with physical custody issues, talking in advance about all of the matters together may reduce the risk of the other parent feeling that what is being asked for is pointed at them.

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Provisions for All Orders

If the parenting plan is to be made a court order, there are certain provisions that are either mandatory or strongly recommended. In California, the following provisions fall within that ambit:

PLEASE BE AWARE, the provisions set out above are merely generalized examples of the types of terms and conditions that may be included in a comprehensive parenting plan. This list is not intended to be complete or exhaustive. If you are faced with circumstances that need specialized provisions, then you should seek the assistance of competent legal counsel.

Software Solutions

There is a host of software publishers clamoring to get parents to buy their products. Some are very good, and others are extremely poor. It would be impossible to comment on them all, but some guidance can be provided.

Most software applications can initially be broken down into two types, online (meaning internet based) and offline (the software is installed on your computer). Another division can be made by what the software is intended to do, facilitate communications, track time with the children, create schedules and calendars, calculate timeshare, or draft parenting plans and orders. None do it all.

For online service, the following websites may be helpful:

For software to install on your computer, the following publishers may be helpful:

Please keep in mind, no matter what a software publisher says, a computer program cannot tell the difference between a mother, father, or other type of partner. Any software application can be used to benefit one parent to the disadvantage of the other, but only if the disadvantaged parent is unprepared or unknowledgeable. There are no tricks OR strategies that only work for one side. But, what you don't know or don't know to consider can and often will hurt your case.

When negotiating any parenting plan, having definite objectives in mind and carefully considering each element of the schedule before making or accepting any proposal will give you the best possible chance for an outcome you can be happy with.

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