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Parenting Plans 101

When you have children and don’t reside with the other parent, developing a successful parenting plan is of vital importance. Your parenting plan will provide a schedule for when your children will be with each parent and describe how you and the other parent will make decisions about the health, education and well-being of your children. Parenting plans should always be in the best interest of the children. In addition, parenting plans should ensure the child’s right to continuous and frequent contact with both parents. Ideally, the parenting plan will be developed collaboratively and mutually agreed upon by both parents. Sometimes reaching an agreement can be challenging and the court must make decisions about what is in the best interest of your children. Either way, a written plan can assist you and your children by providing for stability and predictability, thereby reducing conflicts in the future. Here are some things you should know as you and the other parent develop your parenting plan.

Legal Terms

Custody is defined in Section 3000-3007 of the California Family Code.

  • Physical Custody means where the children live and with whom they spend their time.

o Joint Physical Custody “means that each of the parents shall have significant periods of physical custody. Joint physical custody shall be shared by the parents in such a way so as to assure a child of frequent and continuing contact with both parents, subject to Sections 3011 and 3020." (Section 3004)

o Sole Physical Custody “means that a child shall reside with and be under the supervision of one parent, subject to the power of the court to order visitation." (Section 3007)

  • Legal Custody means who makes important decisions about the children. I.e. - School enrollment, primary medical care provider, religious upbringing, etc.

o Joint Legal Custody “means that both parents shall share the right and the responsibility to make the decisions relating to the health, education, and welfare of a child." (Section 3003)

o Sole Legal Custody “means that one parent shall have the right and the responsibility to make the decisions relating to the health, education, and welfare of a child." (Section 3006)

  • Joint Custody “means joint physical custody and joint legal custody." (Section 3002)


In thinking about the best interest of your children you and the other parent should consider:

  • Age and stage of development of the children
  • Emotional, social and educational needs of the children
  • Health, welfare and safety of the children
  • Ability of parents to communicate and cooperate
  • Ability and psychological adjustment of parents
  • The quality of the parent-child relationships
  • Parental support systems
  • Cultural factors

Should the court need to become involved, California Family Code Section 3011 provides that the court will consider the following, and any other factors it deems relevant:

  • The health, safety, and welfare of the child.

  • Any history of abuse by one parent or any other person seeking custody against any of the following:

o Any child to whom he or she is related by blood or affinity or with whom he or she has had a caretaking relationship, no matter how temporary.

o The other parent.

o A parent, current spouse, or cohabitant, of the parent or person seeking custody, or a person with whom the parent or person seeking custody has a dating or engagement relationship.

  • The nature and amount of contact with both parents, except as provided in Section 3046.

  • The habitual or continual illegal use of controlled substances or habitual or continual abuse of alcohol by either parent.


Holiday schedules should include days which are legally recognized as holidays by the State of California, along with Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and/or other days which are significant to a given family. Holidays are special for parents, for children and for extended family. It’s important that children be able to experience holidays with both parents. Clearly written Holiday Schedules can help ensure that holidays are an enjoyable low-conflict time for everyone.

There are many ways to develop a holiday schedule which works for your family.

  • Even-Odd Schedule: Parents rotate holidays every other year. For example, Parent A has the children on Thanksgiving during even years and Parent B has the children on Thanksgiving during odd years.
  • Same Every Year: Parents may elect that for particular days the children will celebrate that day with one parent each year. For example, on Mother’s Day, if there is one mother and one father, the children will spend each year with their mother.
  • Extra Time: Parents may provide that the parent not in physical custody of the children on a given holiday is allotted extra time each holiday. For example, Parent A has visitation every other weekend and on holidays spends three hours with the children.
  • Regular Schedule: Parents may provide that the usual schedule is followed and that there is no change for holidays.
  • Creative Schedules: Parents can always develop a non-traditional plan if they do not celebrate the same holidays. For example if Parent A celebrates the Christmas holiday on December 24th and Parent B celebrates the Christmas holiday on December 25th the plan may provide that the children are with each parent accordingly.
  • Combination Schedules: Parents may elect to utilize an even-odd schedule for Thanksgiving and Christmas, while keeping the same schedule each year for Mother’s and Father’s Days and developing a creative approach to Easter and Halloween.

Final Tips

  • Children benefit when parents can communicate with each other respectfully.
  • Children benefit from consistent and predictable schedules.
  • Children benefit from smooth transitions.
  • Children benefit when they are allowed to bring items that are important to them between homes.
  • Children benefit when parents are flexible.

Additional resources provided by the author

1) Parenting Plans- California Self-Help Information Webpage: Provides information about parenting plans and step-by-step instructions to turn your parenting plan into a court order.
2) San Francisco’s Parents Guide to Family Court: Provides detailed information about the San Francisco Family Court, including parenting plans.
3) Parenting Plan Guidelines Booklet developed by the Superior Court of California, County of Orange: Provides detailed information about children’s developmental stages according to age, suggested visitation schedules and sample worksheets to develop schedules.

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