When couples with children divorce or separate, they need to create an arrangement for the care of their children that best meets their needs. In child custody, that arrangement is known as a parenting plan. A Parenting Plan is a written agreement between parents that lays out their rights and responsibilities in regards to the care of their children. A comprehensive parenting plan is vital to a continuing relationship between children and their unmarried or divorced parents. It is also a useful tool to avoid conflicts that may arise in the future.
A Parenting Plan should cover the day-to-day responsibilities of each parent, the practical considerations of the children’s daily lives, as well as how parents will agree and consult on important long-term issues about their children. What is best for the children is the most important thing to consider when making a parenting plan. The following checklist identifies important issues to consider when developing a parenting plan. These issues are not exhaustive, and are simply meant to help guide your thinking and discussions on the topic.
- Where Will the Children Live?
First and foremost, parents must decide on living arrangements for their children. This is referred to in the courts as “physical custody.” Parents may decide that the children live equally with each parent, moving between two homes on an alternating schedule. Parents may also choose to have the children live primarily with one parent, and have frequent visitation with the other. Regardless of the arrangement, determining where the children will live is usually the first step.
- How Will Legal Decisions be Made?
In most cases, parents will equally share the right and responsibility to make major decisions affecting their children’s lives. These decisions specifically include those regarding their children’s health, education, and religious upbringing. This type of shared decision-making is referred to in the courts as “joint legal custody.” (Under California law, there is a presumption that joint legal custody is in the best interests of the children). In exceptional circumstances, such as those involving physical or substance abuse, sole legal custody may be awarded to one parent alone.
- How Much Child Support Is Needed?
Under California law, child support is calculated using a complex formula using state regulation, which is done using a program called DissoMaster. The DissoMaster’s proposed support is called “Guideline.” The essential factors in calculating the Guideline are the combined income of each parent, the number of children involved, and the amount of time the children spend with each parent. Courts may deviate from the Guideline in exceptional circumstances.
- Who Will Provide Health Insurance?
State and federal laws require that children have health insurance coverage. Parents need to decide who will pay for this coverage. If one parent has a better health insurance policy and/or can obtain coverage at the least cost, that parent will likely be required to continue providing coverage for the children. The payments made toward health insurance will be considered in the process of calculating child support.
- Who Will Pay Uncovered Expenses?
Life is full of unexpected expenses, such as uncovered medical bills, payment for orthodontic devices, or therapeutic services for children. Parents should have a plan in place for splitting these unexpected costs. Parents should also discuss how they will split other sporadic expenses, such as new text books for school, extracurricular activities, or a vehicle for driver–aged children.
- Who Will Provide Transportation to and from School and Other Activities?
Parents need to create a plan for reliably transporting their children where they need to go. Parents will need to consider their individual work schedules and work out a plan for transporting their children to and from daycare, school, extracurricular activities, parties, and play dates. Parents also need to determine who is responsible for transportation when the children’s custody changes hands, where the exchanges will happen, and what the ground rules will be.
- How Will the Children Spend Their Vacations, Holidays, and Special Events?
How children will spend their vacations, holidays, and other special events (like birthdays) can be a divisive issue between parents. It is important to address this issue early, so both parents understand the rules in advance. Will the children spend certain holidays with one parent every year, or will holidays alternate between parents? Parents should come up with a fair arrangement that considers all school breaks, holidays, and special events (birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and other events such as weddings, graduations, etc.).
- Who Will Attend School and Extracurricular Events?
Parents should decide who will attend parent-teacher conferences and other school and extracurricular events. Will both parents arrive separately to each event, or will events be split? If events are split, parents must decide upon a method for determining who will attend each event. (For example, Mom attends on even-numbered days, and Dad attends on odd-numbered days.)
- Which Third Parties May Visit and Communicate with the Children?
California law recognizes that individuals other than parents often have a significant impact in children’s lives, and have a strong interest in maintaining contact with the children. Parents should decide how and when the children will communicate with these third parties.
- How Will Parents Communicate with Each Other and Their Children?
Generally, parents should not communicate with each other through their children, i.e., use the children as messengers. Parents should decide upon a method and schedule for communicating with each other about the children’s lives and for decision-making. Parents should also decide upon a method and schedule for the children to communicate with them when they are in the other parent’s care.
- Who Will Claim the Tax Deduction(s)?
Generally, the parent with primary physical custody will claim the tax deduction(s) for the children each year. However, the tax deduction is valuable, and can often be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations for child support. Parents may decide that the non-custodial parent will claim the tax deduction(s) each year, or parents may decide to alternate claiming the deduction(s). Parents must decide who will claim the deduction to avoid tax issues with the IRS later on.
- How Will Parents Save for College Expenses?
If the parents have been contributing to a college fund for their children, it is worth discussing how that will continue. Parents may decide to continue contributing jointly to a college savings plan or trust fund, or both parents may decide to start a savings account on their own.
- What Happens if One Parent Must Relocate?
Parents should discuss what to do if one parent finds himself or herself in a situation where he or she needs to relocate away from the other parent. Parents should contemplate this possibility and work through issues like physical custody, visitation, and costs of travel. Parents may agree to prohibit any relocation except with prior court approval and reasonable notice.
- How Will Future Conflicts Be Resolved?
No matter how well parents plan for the future, they simply cannot anticipate every contingency. Since even the most cooperative parents will not always agree, it is important to have a plan in place for resolving future disputes.
At SDMS, we encourage, where possible, parents work with each other to create a parenting plan that is in the best interests of their children. Through mediation, negotiation, or litigation if necessary, our knowledgeable California family law attorneys will be your advocates and help you through difficult situations. If you would like more information about parenting plans, child support, visitation, or any other family law issue, call us at (818) 205-9090 to schedule your free consultation today.