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Child Custody

How to create a parenting plan


1. Introduction

A parenting plan is a formal agreement between parents about how to raise their children. Sometimes called a custody and visitation order, this agreement is standard for divorcing or unmarried parents.

In this guide, we'll show you how to create your own parenting plan by explaining how child custody works, what decisions you'll need to make, and tips for enforcing your agreement in the future.

Ideally, you'll create a parenting plan with the help of your co-parent. This involves discussing your expectations and hopes around co-parenting, then coming to an agreement together, outside of the courtroom.

When parents engage in honest communication about parenting up front, everyone benefits. You and your co-parent set a good precedent for your co-parenting relationship and your kids receive positive and consistent communication.

The judge will likely approve your parenting plan if they believe both of you agreed to it without coercion or duress. Once approved by the court, a parenting plan is legally enforceable. But the plan isn't written in stone—it can usually be altered if your circumstances change later.

2. Before you start

Divorcing couples are required to submit a parenting plan at the time of their divorce or separation. Unmarried couples with children may not be required to have a parenting plan, but can still benefit from having an agreement filed with the court. Once the parenting plan is signed and filed, it becomes legally enforceable.

Do I need a lawyer?

If your situation is simple, you may be able to draft your parenting plan without a lawyer. But, either spouse can benefit by retaining their own lawyer to review and request changes to the document. A lawyer can help you understand your state's requirements, review the agreement you and your spouse create, and even draft the entire agreement for you.

Cost of hiring a lawyer

$150–$350 per hour

Generally speaking, there are 2 ways an attorney can help you draft your parenting plan:

  • Your attorney reviews the agreement: $150 average total
  • Your attorney writes the agreement: $600 average total

What if we can't agree?

If you can't agree on a parenting plan, you can hire a mediator to help you work out your issues. In a mediation session, a third-party helps you and your co-parent constructively discuss your disagreements so that you can arrive at an agreement that works for both of you.

In some states, mediation through family court services is required for parents who disagree, at no extra cost. You may be able to get 1–3 hours of mediation services, but if you need additional time, you will probably have to meet with a private mediator at your own expense. In other states, mediation services are not provided, so you and your co-parent will have to split the cost of a private mediator.

If mediation does not work, the judge in charge of your case can create your parenting plan in court. During this hearing, the judge decides what arrangement is in the children's best interest. This could be one parent's proposed plan, a mixture of proposed plans, or something else entirely.

However, working a parenting plan out in court, which includes filing paperwork, arranging hearings, and consulting lawyers, can become expensive and create feelings of resentment. If both parties have good intentions and a desire to work together, you can save a lot of money.

Want more help?
Get free attorney tips and advice about child custody, child support, and parenting plans in our 5-part series.

3. Determine custody

When creating a parenting plan, it is important to understand the different types of child custody. Parents must decide if they will share physical and/or legal custody.

Physical custody

In some states, physical custody is also called "parenting time." This gives you the right to live with your children on at least a semi-permanent basis. It may be granted to just one parent (sole custody), or shared equally between both parents (joint custody).

Sole physical custody means your children primarily live with one parent while the other parent has limited visitation rights. For example, the children might live with one parent during the school year, but spend alternate weekends, a few weeks of summer vacation, and alternate holidays with the other.

Joint physical custody means your children live with both parents on an equal basis. Children might alternate weeks between each parent's home, for example.

Legal custody

In some states, legal custody is also referred to as "decision making." This gives you the right to make important decisions on behalf of your children. This includes decisions about medical care, education, activities, and religion.

Most parents share legal custody of their children, meaning they must agree on any of these decisions. If you have sole legal custody, you can make decisions without the other parent's permission, but this arrangement is less common.

Tip: Unmarried fathers must establish paternity before they can get custody or establish visitation rights. This is most commonly done by signing a form at the hospital when the child is born.

4. Create a custody and visitation schedule

Once you've determined your physical and legal custody arrangement, you'll need to create a custody and visitation schedule. This is a playbook of how you'll share parenting time and responsibilities with your co-parent. Remember that your plan should be specific, but flexible.

What to include in your custody and visitation schedule

Every family's parenting plan will be unique, but you and your co-parent can use these questions as a starting point:

  • School year schedule. Where will the children live during the school year? How often will they spend time with the other parent?
  • Vacation and holiday schedule. Who will take care of the children on holidays, school vacations, or sick days? Will these responsibilities alternate between odd and even years? Will you make exceptions for birthdays, weddings, or other special events?
  • Transportation. How will the parents coordinate pick-up/drop-off responsibilities? At what times will the children be in someone else's care?
  • Communication. How will the parents communicate with each other? How will they communicate with their children?
  • Routine. If the child is still an infant, do you have specific feeding or nap times? If they're older, when do they need to wake up for school or do their homework?
  • Social life. Who are the children allowed (or not allowed) to spend time with? Who will arrange extracurricular activities? Will both parents attend sporting events, recitals, etc?
  • Special needs. Do your children have any special needs that require extra care? Will one or both or you need to attend doctor appointments? How should the parents notify each other if there's an emergency?
  • Sharing records. Will you agree to share medical or school records with the other parent? Will both parents have direct access to these records?
  • Handling disagreements. How will you deal with conflict? Will you meet with a mediator or therapist before going to court?
  • Updating your agreement. What circumstances warrant a change to the parenting plan? Will you plan to revisit the agreement regularly?

5. How to submit a parenting plan

Each parent must sign the parenting plan before they submit it to the court. Keep in mind that the specific paperwork and procedures for submitting a parenting plan will vary from state to state. For example, some states require you to set up a hearing with the judge to finalize the agreement.

How the court evaluates a parenting plan

Generally, courts will consider the best interests of the children when evaluating a parenting plan. While the factors that courts take into consideration vary depending on the state, courts generally consider parenting ability, consistency, the age of the children, and the impact of changing the children's existing routine.

The court may deny the parenting agreement if it is not in the children's best interests, if one of the parents has been accused of committing domestic violence against the children, or if evidence exists of one parent coercing the other parent to agree to the parenting plan.

How to file your parenting plan

Once the judge signs your agreement, you must file it with the court clerk. The court may require a filing fee, which varies from state to state.

Tip: If you don't have an attorney, you can ask your local court clerk more about the procedures in your area. While the clerk cannot provide legal advice, they can tell you how to submit the parenting plan and what else you may need.

6. Next steps

Many parents periodically revisit their parenting plan every few years or make adjustments as necessary. Changes to the parenting plan must reflect actual changes to the circumstances of either parent or their children. Any changes must be in the best interest of the children, and not just convenient or desirable for the parents.

What if we need to change our parenting plan?

Common reasons for modifying a parenting plan include:

  • One parent moves further away from the other and the current parenting schedule becomes too difficult or impossible to maintain.
  • One parent gets a new job or their work schedule changes.
  • A child has new medical or educational needs that can't be met under the current plan.
  • One parent is no longer able to care for their children.

Note that modifying the parenting plan isn't always the same thing as modifying the custody assignment. You may have to make a separate filing with the court to change who has physical or legal custody. Check your state law for details.

It's easiest when you and your co-parent agree to make changes together. For example, due to your new work schedule, you both realize that it will be better for your kids if they came to your home on weekends and summer vacations, rather than switching homes every week. You write up this decision, in the format required by the court, and submit the paperwork for review. If the judge thinks the changes are reasonable, then the judge issues a new court order reflecting those changes.

If you and your co-parent don't agree, one parent can petition the court to make changes. In many states, you may be required to attend mediation to see if the disagreement can be resolved. If not, the court will schedule a hearing for the parties to make their arguments. But, in the end, the court decides whether any changes will be made.

What if we don't follow our parenting plan?

If a parent violates the parenting plan repeatedly, the other parent can bring these violations to the judge's attention. In some states, the court may suggest for a parent to ask the local police department to enforce the parenting plan, as this is often faster than requesting a court hearing.

Parenting plan violations may include:

  • Failing to attend court-ordered visitation times
  • Not showing up for custody switches or being repeatedly late
  • Refusing to relinquish custody of the children at the agreed-upon times

Note that a parent can't use an occasional slip-up to get the other parent in trouble. In general, judges or police look for intent and repeated violations before considering such a move.

If a judge finds the violating parent to be in contempt of court—meaning that they knowingly violated the court order—they may face legal consequences. This might include mandatory parenting classes, mediation or counseling with the other parent, or additional court hearings. Changes to the parenting plan, like supervised visitation or loss of custody altogether, may be necessary in instances where a child's safety is put at risk.

Want more help?
Get free attorney tips and advice about child custody, child support, and parenting plans in our 5-part series.