After a divorce, you’ll face many new challenges as you continue to raise a child together while building your separate lives. As part of your divorce settlement, you’ll be expected to create a child custody plan (also known as a co-parenting plan) that must be reviewed and approved by the court. What does a co-parenting plan look like? What should be in it, and what should you keep in mind as you begin to build your plan?
How to Develop a Child Custody Plan
You can create your child custody plan in one of two ways. The first way is to work together with your spouse to create a plan that everyone in the family thrives under. This option will likely require patience and compromise on your part.
If you and your spouse cannot create a child custody plan on your own, then you will have to go to court and present your case to a family law judge. This option will be expensive, stressful, and slow.
What Goes into a Child Custody Plan?
In a nutshell, your child custody plan should lay out all the details of how you and your spouse will share the guardianship of your children. Your plan should be customized to the realities of your family, including the ages of your children, their personalities, your work and social schedules, how far you live from each other, etc.
Typically, a child custody plan includes:
Legal Custody Arrangement
Will you both share legal custody, which means you are both responsible for the welfare and upbringing of your children, or does one parent have sole legal custody? Sole custody means that one parent may make medical decisions for the child, raise them in a certain religion, allow them to participate in certain extracurricular activities, and more.
Physical Custody Arrangement
Will both parents share joint physical custody, meaning the children live with each parent, or will the children live full time with one parent who retains sole physical custody?
If the parents share joint custody of the children, what will that look like? Some parents agree to a 50/50 custody plan where the children live with each parent for an equal amount of time. Other parents prefer that the children have a “home base” where they live most of the time. This may look more like a 70/30 custody arrangement, or even an 80/20 arrangement.
The custody schedule should address large school breaks, vacations, and holidays.
Medical and Healthcare Decisions
If the parents share joint legal custody of the children, how will the parents make medical decisions on behalf of the children? Who will take them to the doctor or dentist and who will cover the costs of these appointments? These facts should be included in the child custody plan.
Most parents have strong opinions on how they would like to raise their children. Parents can add specific parenting stipulations to their child custody plan, such as how to discipline children, extracurricular activities the children can or cannot join, whether parents can drink or use tobacco in front of children, etc. Some parents also add a prohibition against speaking negatively about the other parent or trying to turn the children against the other parent.
In this section, the parents should specify which school the children will attend, who will pay for schooling if the children attend a private school, who will drop off and pick up the children, and what school activities the children can or can’t attend. This is also a good spot to lay out a college savings plan.
How will the parents communicate with one another about the child custody plan? Will a parent need to notify the other parent about certain things, such as a planned vacation with the children, signing them up for a new activity, or introducing them to a new partner? How much notice should a parent give if they can’t care for the children during their designated days, want to switch holidays, or want to take the children on a trip?
What happens if a parent wishes to relocate or needs to relocate for a job?
Child Support and Taxes
In this section, plan which parent will be paying child support and what formula will be used to determine the amount of child support. If you are the parent paying child support, it’s a good idea to include language that allows you to lower your child support responsibility if you should lose your job or face surprise expenses, like large medical bills. In this section, you can also mention which parent will include the children on their taxes.
Changes to the Child Custody Plan
Explain how revisions can be made to the child custody plan. Does a parent need to request a change in writing? How long does the other parent have to review the change? What happens if the parents disagree on the change?
If one or both of the parents are in the military, it’s a good idea to include military provisions in the child custody agreement. These provisions may cover what happens to the plan when a parent is deployed or when a parent is relocated.
Every family and parenting situation is different. If you have a concern, you can put it in the child custody plan as long as your spouse agrees. In this section, you can, for example, require that your spouse raise your child in a certain religion, grant your family members the ability to take the children on your behalf, or anything else. Just keep in mind that a judge will need to review and approve your custody plan before it becomes legal whether you come to an agreement outside of court or with the support of a court.
Does your child have special needs, like a medical or emotional condition? In this section, add any special considerations, like how often medication should be given or what accommodations should be available in each parent’s home.
Amending Your Child Custody Agreement
In all likelihood, your agreement will need to change as your situation changes and as your children grow. Younger children, for instance, often do better when they see their parents more often, but older kids may prefer to live primarily with one parent. In other cases, a parent may need to relocate for a job or family emergency, which will mean changing up the custody schedule.
Stay flexible and include provisions on how to revise and update the co-parenting plan. If you need to revise the plan but can’t agree on revisions with your spouse, you may end up in court again.
Keep Your Children in Mind
The most important piece of advice to keep in mind when developing your child custody plan is to always put the needs of your children first. Think about what will help them get the love, support, and stability they need to thrive. If your children are older, it may be a good idea to invite them into the planning process.
For the sake of your children, try to offer your spouse respect and understanding so that the two of you can work together, not against each other, in raising your children. Looking for more divorce advice? Find the nearest Second Saturday Divorce Workshop.