We all know that many couples are opting not to get married these days, and yet they are still creating families. In the United States, we now have about 40% of children born to unmarried women. Whether the fathers are involved or not afterwards varies greatly, but as soon as the couple starts to experience major disagreements about parenting it’s imperative they get some professional assistance with creating a Parenting Plan.
When parents are contemplating a separation, they need to clearly establish in a legal contract what their respective rights and responsibilities will be with respect to the children. A Parenting Plan is a legal contract that outlines (1) the level of financial support each party will provide for the children, (2) a mechanism for making major decisions about the children’s health, education and general welfare, and (3) a the time-sharing arrangement they will have on a regular weekly basis, as well as holidays and summer.
The first step in developing a parenting plan is to discuss with an experienced professional what the parents will say to the children about the separation, and hopefully develop a shared narrative that is age-appropriate. Next is to work together to acclimate the children to two separate homes, and possibly two different sets of rules in each house. The more that children can be shielded from sudden changes, and major disruptions to their lives, the better off they will be in the long run.
Each family has a different set of dynamics and the needs of the children can vary greatly, especially depending on their ages. Therefore, a significant amount of time and care needs to be given in devising a time-sharing schedule that will promote predictability, consistency and stability for everyone involved. Sometimes, the input of a mental health expert may be needed depending on the complexity of the situation or if the parents have extremely differing views.
Often, families need to consider a graduated schedule, which allows for a ramp-up period so the children can adjust to transition between two homes. Some families benefit from having one schedule during the school year and then a different, more liberal schedule for the summer months. Each family has their own traditions/holidays/special days that are important to them, and these need to be considered carefully and memorialized.
Setting up a communication protocol for the parents is key to a successful co-parenting relationship going forward. If this has not gone smoothly in the past, then it’s important to spend some time problem-solving for the future so that we break past patterns that have not been productive.
These conversations can be difficult, especially if there is a lot of unresolved hurt from the past. But the focus needs to be on the future and what is best for the children. Parents that can put aside their own personal differences for the children’s sake, are in the best position for success going forward even though they are no longer a family under one roof.
The more forward-thinking and detailed a Parenting Plan is the less chance for arguments in the future. These agreements set clear expectations and safety provisions for potential challenges that bound to happen, especially when one parent remarries or someone feels the time-sharing schedule needs to be modified.
As children grow up, the family dynamics will continue to evolve, and it’s crucial to have an experienced family law attorney guide parents in transition towards a thoughtful resolution that will be accepted by a family court. For over 25 years, it has been my pleasure to work with parents on a Parenting Plan that is tailored to the needs of that particular family with the children’s best interest at heart.
By Regina A. DeMeo