By Alan Freed
When I began practicing law in the ‘80s, it was not uncommon to see parenting plans (we called them “custody orders” in those days) that awarded Mom with what was imprecisely referred to as “primary custody,” and gave Dad “reasonable rights of visitation” as the parties agreed.
Fast forward to today’s legal world, in which we routinely write detailed plans outlining how the parents will share “parenting time” with the children, including a weekly schedule, holiday schedule, and vacation schedule.
Frequently, however, particularly in my role as mediator, I see parents who insist they have no difficulty agreeing on sharing the children’s time. Some even tell me they will always spend holidays or the children’s birthdays together. They don’t understand why I still want to write a detailed parenting schedule.
A well-written parenting plan will spell out who is to be primarily responsible for the children’s care every day of the year. It will state what time each parent begins and ends their period of responsibility, how they will share the holidays and special occasions, such as birthdays and Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days, and how they will schedule vacations with the children.
Those parents who can easily cooperate about parenting the children today may find that changes in their lives make cooperation more difficult. One or both parents may recouple or remarry, leaving them with divided loyalties. Their new partner may not like their ex, or vice versa, or both new partners may dislike each other. New partners often come with children of their own who are on schedules that differ from the one Mom and Dad agreed to operate under.
A carefully drafted parenting plan eliminates any uncertainty about the schedule. If the plan says that Dad gets the children on Thanksgiving in odd-numbered years from 5:00 p.m. Wednesday to 9:00 a.m. Friday, there can be no dispute over when pickups and drop-offs take place in 2025. This precision means the parents need not hire lawyers to straighten out scheduling disputes because the plan leaves no room for such arguments.
My long career as a mediator has provided me with many examples of how poorly written parenting plans can cause problems. One couple couldn’t agree on when spring break started: Dad said it started when school let out on Friday; Mom showed him the school calendar, which showed the break starting on Monday. The parenting plan simply said, “a period of seven days during the children’s spring break.” Careful drafting would have avoided this problem.
I consider parenting plans to be the most important contracts I write. My goal is to set the parents and children up for post-separation success, which means anticipating problems before they arise and writing a thoughtful schedule tailored to a family’s unique needs.