CHAPTER 2: Children and Parenting
PROTECTING YOUR CHILDREN FROM YOUR DIVORCE
Keep Your Children from Becoming Collateral Damage
During and in the immediate aftermath of your divorce, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own emotional and financial concerns. Although you have a lot on your plate, don’t let your children become collateral damage. Your children should be your most pressing concern. They are your most important responsibility. Put them first.
To help your children survive the divorce without lasting harm, study these rules and put them into practice.
Rule #1: Shelter Your Children from Conflict
Don’t draw your children into the divorce by fighting around them. Even if you fight in a separate room behind closed doors, your children know that you are fighting. Studies have concluded that conflict between parents during and after divorce leads to significant and lasting problems for the children.
- During childhood, they suffer with:
- Lower academic achievement.
- More behavior problems.
- Poorer psychological adjustment.
- More negative self-concepts.
- More social difficulties.
- More problematic relationships with mothers and fathers.
As adults, they are characterized by:
- Lower psychological well-being.
- More behavioral problems.
- Less education.
- Lower job status and lower standard of living.
They are also:
- More likely to never marry or experience lower marital satisfaction.
- More likely not to have children.
- At a heightened risk for divorce.
Rule #2: Keep Your Children out of the Divorce
Don’t draw your children into your divorce
. You should never expect them to fill the role of friend, confidant, or spy. Treating your child like your best buddy only confuses the child and removes you as an authority figure. Confiding in children dumps emotional issues on them that they are simply not mature enough to deal with. Pumping children for information about your spouse makes children feel as though they have betrayed their other parent.
You are the parent, and they are the children. The line between parent and child should remain crystal clear. Do not let the roles change. Your children are not your friends. They are not your confidants. It is not their job to give you emotional support and validation. Build a shell around them, and keep them protected from the divorce.
Never use your children as pawns to extract more favorable settlement terms from your spouse. You will feel ashamed and degraded if you treat your children like items of property.
Rule #3: Reassure Your Children that They Are Loved and Will Be Cared for
Your children must be told this repeatedly. Tell your children that both of their parents love them very much. Make it a mantra: “You are loved, and you will be taken care of.”
You can also reassure your children by providing them with age-appropriate information. For example, you and your spouse should tell your children that you are divorcing, but don’t share the reasons with them. Tell them that you and their dad or mom are going to be living apart, and that they will have two houses instead of one. See §2:09 below for more tips on telling your children about your divorce.
Answer their questions honestly, if you can. Their questions will normally center around their immediate needs, like if they will still be able to go a friend’s birthday party or participate in a school activity.
Other questions may not have answers right now. If you don’t know, say so, and then repeat your mantra: “You are loved and will be taken care of no matter what happens.”
Rule #4: Do Not Denigrate Their Other Parent
Don’t tell your children their other parent is lazy, worthless, or a cheater. It is not your job to enlighten your children about their other parent’s character flaws. Do not say or do anything to degrade your children’s other parent in their eyes. Your children have an enduring bond with their other parent. This bond cannot be broken under any circumstances. Any attempt you make to damage or alter the bond will only hurt your children. Ultimately, you will damage your own relationship with the children.
Bear in mind that children who have both parents actively involved in their lives do better than children who do not. For the sake of your children, you need to encourage a relationship between them and their other parent even if your spouse has not behaved as you might have wished.
There is something else you have to consider: What will happen to your children if you die or become unable to care for them? The children will most likely end up with your spouse. If a safe haven hasn’t been prepared for them there, and if a solid relationship doesn’t exist between them and their other parent, your children could very well be damaged for years.
Rule #5: Maintain Structure and a Sense of Normalcy
Reassure your children by maintaining structure. Stick with the children’s normal routines. Regular scheduling of homework, meals, and bedtimes will do far more to supply reassurance than simple words.
Rule #6: Be a Positive Role Model
Present a strong positive face to your children. If you collapse under the stresses of divorce and allow your children to witness it, they will also collapse. If you go to pieces, or let anger overwhelm you, they will go right along with you. Do your grieving in private after your children are asleep or when they are not with you.
If you behave as a confident leader in spite of internal turmoil, the children will be reassured and join you in facing the changes. A positive mental attitude and a structured, secure atmosphere will help your children survive the divorce without lasting damage.
Rule #7: Monitor Your Children Closely
You must monitor your children’s development very closely during the divorce process. The conflict will normally delay their development and may even cause some regression. For example, children who have been successfully toilet trained may have a significant increase in the number of accidents.
Children normally recover from these delays or regressions as their situation becomes more stable and predictable. However, severe regression or destructive behavior needs immediate attention such as counseling. Violent behavior directed at siblings or other children should be addressed immediately.
Talk to your children’s teachers and caregivers. Let them know what’s going on and ask them to tell you the type of problems the children may be experiencing. It’s kind of like taking the children’s temperature. You’ll be able to tell how well they are doing by how they are functioning at their jobs of growing up.
Telling Your Children about Your Divorce
If you haven’t yet told your children about the divorce, you may be wondering how to broach the topic. Parents sometimes delay telling their children because they think they are protecting them. However, children often know that something is going on and feel more stress because of the uncertainty than they would if they knew the truth.
As a general rule, both parents should talk to the children together. The children should be told at the same time, whenever possible. You and your spouse should agree in advance on how, when, and where to tell your children, and what to say when they ask “Why?” If you can’t agree, a therapist could be helpful in resolving your dispute.
Before you sit down to talk to your children, be sure that you are in control of your own emotions. You must behave in a mature fashion and not reveal any anger, disappointment, fear, frustration, hurt or blame. So do not talk to your children until you can be in control. Watch your body language and tone of voice, in addition to what you say.
Offer clear, honest explanations. Avoid elaborate details of your marital problems (i.e. affairs, sexual problems, money problems). Stress to your children that they are not responsible for the divorce, but that this is an issue between the adults. Emphasize that the divorce is not their fault, but make clear to them that they can do nothing to change your decision.
Focus on what will happen to each child. Describe basic changes (i.e. living arrangements, financial changes, time with the other parent). Give your children a time frame for the expected changes if you can. Assure your children that you will tell them about all major developments and changes. Invite your children to express their concerns and offer suggestions.
Reassure your children that your divorce will not change the love either of you feels for them. Give them permission to love both of you.
DEVELOPING A PARENTING PLAN
The Truth about Parenting Plans
What Is a Parenting Plan
A parenting plan is a written blueprint for how you and your soon to be ex-spouse will care for your children now that you are no longer living in the same household. The best plans are based on agreement between the two parents. If your and your spouse are unable to agree on a parenting plan, the court will impose one on you. Neither one of you may be happy with its terms.
Parenting plans vary in complexity from a few lines to 20 pages on more. Often the simpler the plan and the more flexible the parents, the better the plan works. See §2:26 and §2:27 below for two typical parenting plan agreements.
If you and your spouse want to parent your children effectively after your divorce you need to understand and accept two things about parenting plans:
- No matter how complete your parenting plan, there is no possible way to anticipate everything that will happen. Work, school, and extracurricular schedules change, kids and parents get sick, and an infinite number of other variables interfere with your carefully thought out plan.
- By and large, parenting plans are not enforceable. Courts cannot force a person to become a good parent. They can’t send a sheriff’s officer out every time a parent brings a child home late. Courts can’t mandate respect, empathy, or simple good manners, all of which have to be applied to one degree or another in order to successfully share parenting.
It is best to treat parenting plans as a tentative schedule of parenting time that is subject to change. They can’t foresee and deal with everything that will happen in the parenting of children. Only responsible, loving parents can do that.
What Goes Into a Parenting Plan
At a minimum, your parenting plan should address:
- Who has decision making authority for your children. This is known as legal custody.
- How you and your spouse will share parenting time with your children. This is known as physical custody and visitation
Legal custody or decision making authority refers to the right to make major decisions about your children. It includes such things as where the children will go to school, what religion the children will be raised in, and what type of medical treatment the children will have.
You and your spouse can agree that you will make decisions together (known as “joint legal custody”). Joint custody means conferring before any decision is made. Alternatively, you can agree that one parent will make all the decisions (known as “sole legal custody”). These are the two most common arrangements. However, some couples agree that they will attempt to make decisions jointly, but if agreement cannot be reached, one parent will have the final word. Others agree that one parent will make certain decisions and the other parent will make other decisions.
Physical custody or time sharing refers to how the parents schedule time with the children. It addresses where the children will live and who will provide care and supervision during specific times. Parents can agree to just about any arrangement that suits their schedules and their children’s developmental needs.
Many parents agree that the children will live primarily with one parent and will spend specific periods of time, such as alternating week- ends and part of summer vacation, with the other. Other parents agree to share time with the children equally by alternating weeks, or months, or splitting the week, for example. In choosing a time sharing schedule, it’s important to consider the children’s ages and developmental needs, as well as the practicalities of transportation, work schedules, and living space. The time sharing and decision making are independent concepts.
Parents who share decision making need not have equal parenting time. It is still probably more common for the child to live mainly with one parent and spend time with the other parent on weekends and during school vacations.
Developing a Time Sharing Schedule for Your Parenting Plan
Set Up a Definite Schedule
It is better to have a set schedule as a fall-back position even if you feel like you don’t need it now. There may be times when your relationship with the other parent is strained and it is better to be prepared than to be sorry. You may ignore the set schedule now. Either parent can invoke it at difficult times, and then ignore it again at better times.
Consider Your Children’s Age, Temperament, and Developmental Needs
Infants and very young children need the stability of a primary care- taker. They should have short but frequent visits with the other parent. As they get older, the time with the other parent can be increased and the parents can even share time equally, if desired.
If you are considering equal timesharing, think about how your child adapts to change, a new caretaker, and a new school. Some children must sleep in one bed or had to use one toilet when being toilet trained or did not do well their first time in preschool or when being separated from their caretaker. These children may not be good candidates for equal timesharing, at least until they are somewhat older. For more on age appropriate timesharing, see §§2:21 through 2:25 below.
Consider the Parenting Arrangement You Had before your Separation
Agree whether to continue your previous parenting arrangement or make changes, and why. Often one parent (usually mom) has been the primary caregiver. The other parent often wants to increase his involvement with the children after the divorce, even having the children 50 percent of the time or more. Seeking greater involvement with the children is admirable if for the right reasons. Reducing your child support obligation is not one of them. This is a focus on your needs and wants, not what is in the best interests of the children.
Remember that Frequent and Continuing Contact with Both Parents Is Best
In the vast majority of cases, the children will be best served by having frequent and continuing contact with both parents after their divorce. Any parent who opposes this arrangement should be able to show that the children’s emotional, mental, or physical health would be at risk of permanent harm.
Sometimes a parent who has been especially hurt by the divorce will avoid contact with the children. He or she may feel cheated by the financial outcome or shut out and not needed by the children. If this describes you, be assured that your children do need you. A child needs a relationship and personal contact with both a mother and a father. Even though the parents have not been able to get along, the children still need both of you to have the best chance to grow into healthy adults.
Plan “Responsible” Time for Both Parents
Both parents should be actively involved in the children’s lives with responsible time as well as recreational time. One parent’s time shouldn’t consist solely of fun, while the other supervises work.
Children need chores and involvement in day-to-day activities in both homes, for example, food shopping and cleaning the house. Both parents should have an opportunity to supervise homework and school projects. Both parents should have time when the children have school activities and extra-curricular activities.
Think About the Practicalities
Think about the geographical proximity between your homes, your work schedules, and the children’s school and activity schedules. You want to make a time sharing schedule that is workable and requires little change. The change should be to the appointment that interferes with the schedule, rather than to the schedule, so the children are not disappointed and understand that they are the priority in their parents’ lives.
Understand that Quality Time Trumps Amount
The amount of time spent with the children is not as important as the quality of the time. One way to have quality time is to create rituals with the children. These can be holiday traditions, shared hobbies, and treasured routines, such as reading favorite bedtime stories. Rituals with each parent create the memories that children will carry with them to their children.
Make Avoiding Conflict your Highest Priority
In developing a parenting plan, parents often focus on and argue about how much time they will or won’t have with their children. The best outcomes for children occur when there is little or no conflict between parents. It does not matter where the child lays his or her head down more of the time if there is conflict. It does not matter if a parent spends more or less time with a child if there is conflict.
Plan for Periodic Review
Parents will need to re-evaluate and adjust the time sharing schedule from time to time, according to the children’s age, interest, and activities. Plan on meeting after certain set periods of time to reconsider the schedule.
Infants and Babies
Children up to age eighteen months need familiarity and consistency. A plan that provides for a three month old child spending one week with dad and one week with mom is a bad idea. Very young children are bound to one parent and disturbing that bond will probably cause abandonment issues for the child. Taking a very young child away from his or her primary caretaker (usually mom) for an extended period of time is just not wise.
The younger the child, the shorter and more frequent should be the visits with the other parent. The environments at both parents’ homes should be as identical as possible, down to the smells of the fabric softeners and detergents. If possible, parents should use the same caretaker when neither of them can be with the child. Try not to leave the child with unfamiliar caretakers or with frequent environmental changes. The child should have the same schedules of naps and bedtime, bath time, feeding, type of formula, etc. Overnights may be appropriate depending on the amount and frequency of contact between the parent and child, the duplication of environment, and the parent’s commitment to the schedule.
Children eighteen months to three years old need continuity as well as familiarity and consistency. Toilet training methods need to be the same. The child needs the same routine, eating, activities, and bedtime. Structure is important and the structure should be the same in both homes.
Children age three to five need predictability and frequent assurance of when they will see the other parent to prevent separation anxiety. The same calendar highlighted with the days with each parent in different colors in each parent’s home will give the child a reference point. Changes should be minimal. The child may be fine with adding two night weekends to the weekday contacts and may be fine with one week blocks of time in the summer and during school vacations.
School Age Children
Children from ages six to twelve years old need responsible as well as recreational time with both parents and responsibilities at both homes. Both parents need to be committed to school as a priority with a reasonable bedtime, homework time, and the same priority placed on finishing homework. Extended summer time with both parents, with contact with both parents during the extended time may be appropriate. Both parents should car pool and supervise activities if possible to remain actively involved in the children’s lives.
Children from ages thirteen to seventeen require considerable supervision despite their seeming independence. This is a trying time for parents as well as children and requires a commitment to school, predictable and consistent parenting and flexibility in the time sharing schedule. The teenager may want a reduction in weekend time and vacation time spent with a parent to spend more time with his or her friends. Parents can volunteer for car pooling and chaperone activities to provide supervision while respecting their children’s needs to socialize and become independent. Children may want friends along on family activities as well as other input into the time sharing schedule.
SAMPLE PARENTING PLANS
Parenting Plan Agreement: Joint Physical and Legal Custody
This parenting plan provides that the parents will have joint decision making authority and will spend equal time with the children by alter- nating weeks. It’s most appropriate for school age children, but is not a good idea for infants and small children who should not be separated from a primary caregiver for extended periods.
JOINT PARENTING AGREEMENT
THIS AGREEMENT, made and entered into this day of , 20 , by and between JOHN DOE (hereinafter referred to as “father”) and JANE DOE (hereinafter referred to as “mother”) is intended by the parties to be a Joint Parenting Agreement, as contemplated by and provided for in [legal authority].
The parties agree that they shall have and enjoy joint legal custody of their three (3) minor children, JESSICA DOE, born (date), and JEFFREY DOE and JASON DOE, twins, born (date); and
The parties have further agreed that the residential circumstances of each parent favors an award of joint custody; and
The parties possess the ability to cooperate effectively and consistently with each other towards the best interests of their minor children; and
The maximum involvement and cooperation of both parents regarding the physical, mental, moral, and emotional well-being of the parties’ children is in the best interests of the children.
THEREFORE, THE PARTIES AGREE AS FOLLOWS:
- Joint Physical Custody. The parties have carefully weighed and con- sidered the question of the custody of their minor children. In doing so, they have been guided solely by considerations touching upon the children’s welfare. The parties acknowledge and agree that they shall have and enjoy joint physical custody of their minor children
, JESSICA DOE, JEFFREY DOE, and JASON DOE.
- Cooperation in Arranging Parenting Time. Subject to the further provisions set forth in this Agreement, father and mother agree to cooperate in every respect to arrange for parenting time between them and their minor children. Parenting time is to be arranged in conjunction with the children’s school and extracurricular and work activities, and to the extent possible and appropriate, by considering the children’s best interests and the parties’ respective schedules.
- Joint Legal Custody and Decision-Making. The parties agree that, except for emergencies, they shall share responsibility for, and shall jointly make, all decisions affecting the best interests and welfare of their children on issues involving the children’s health, education, summer, and extracurricular activities. Due to this custodial arrangement, both parties’ residences shall serve as the residences of the children.
- Parenting Time: Alternating Weeks. The parties further agree that the children shall spend parenting time of one week with mother, commencing on , and parenting time the following week with father, commencing on . The exchanges of the children shall occur on Sunday evening at 5:00 p.m., year round. The party who is to commence his or her parenting time shall be responsible for the pickup of the children.
- Mutual Cooperation and Respect. The parties agree and acknowledge that it is in the best interests of their children that both parents instill and generate affection in their children for their parents. To accomplish this, each party agrees to assume the responsibility of frequent association with, and attention to, the children. Further, each party agrees to refrain from making any insulting, derogatory, or deprecatory remarks or comments about the other to, or in the presence of, the children. Each party shall also cooperate in accommodating the other who may wish to have the children for some special event or occasion.
- Access to School and Medical Records. The parties agree that they shall continue to reside in the [Name] School District, and that the children shall attend school in that district. The parties agree that each party shall be afforded access to the school and medical records of the children. The parties further agree that, to the extent required by either a school district in which the children are enrolled, or a provider of medical services to the children, either party shall be authorized to (i) have access to information concerning the children, and/or (ii) release information concerning the children to any third party.
- Notification of Activities. The parties agree that they will keep each other informed as to all school functions, meetings, and other activities in which the children are involved, so as to enable both parties to attend and participate in these events, and be an integral part of the children’s involvement in them.
- Notification of Serious Illness. Each party shall promptly inform the other of any serious illness of the child/children that requires medical attention while the child/children are in the physical possession of that party. Elective procedures shall only be performed after consultation between the parties. Emergency surgery necessary for the preservation of life or to prevent a further serious injury or condition may be performed without consultation with the party who does not, at that time, have actual physical possession of the child/children; provided, however, that if time permits, the other party shall be consulted, and, in any event, informed as soon as is reasonably possible.
- Notification of Other Health Problems. Both parties shall inform each other of any medical or health problems that arose while they had physical possession of the child/children, when information about that medical or health problem would aid the other party in the care and treatment of the child/children. Both parties shall provide each other with any medications that the child/children is/are taking at the time of the transfer of physical possession and with sufficient information to allow the party assuming physical possession to obtain refills of that medication.
- Medical Provider Information. Both parties shall, when requested, provide information to the other party regarding the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and any other necessary facts concerning the providers of any medical or health care to the child/children.
- Out-of State Travel. Neither party shall remove the children from the State of [current residence] without leave of Court or by express written agreement of the parties. Notwithstanding the foregoing, either party may temporarily take the children to another state for vacation or for other good reason, upon reasonable notice to the other parent. In the event either party shall remove the children from the state of [current residence] for vacation or other good reason as contemplated herein, the removing party shall notify the other party of an address and telephone number where that party and the children may be reached in the event of an emergency.
- Complaints and Conflicts. If any conflicts arise between the par- ties as to any of the provisions of this Joint Parenting Agreement or its implementation, the complaining party shall first notify the other party of the nature of the complaint, and both parties shall make a reasonable attempt to negotiate a settlement of the conflict. Wherever practicable under the circumstances, a complaint shall be made in writing, and given to, or mailed to, the other party. The party receiving the complaint shall, when practicable, reply to the complaint in a similar manner in written form. If the parties are unable to resolve their conflict within a reasonable period of time, the parties agree to mediation of their conflict by [Mediator’s name] in all matters that do not involve any immediate danger to the physical, psychological, or emotional health of the children. Nothing contained in this provision shall be construed as, nor is it intended to be, an abrogation, waiver, or release of either party’s rights, pursuant to [insert reference to statute or rule].
- Invalid Provisions. If any Court of competent jurisdiction should determine that any portion or portions, or provision or provisions, of this Agreement are void or unenforceable, that portion or portions, or provision or provisions, shall be stricken from this Agreement, but the balance of this Agreement, and the terms and provisions thereof, shall remain in full force and effect.
- Periodic Review. This Agreement shall be reviewed periodically by the parties, as may be necessitated by the age, school, and extra-curricular activities of the children.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the parties have hereunto set their hands and seals on the day and date first above written.
Parenting Plan Agreement: Sole Parenting with Consultation and Other Parental Rights for Non-Custodial Parent
This parenting plan agreement gives one parent legal and physical custody and spells out a time sharing schedule that gives the other parent alternating weekends, holidays, and summer vacation time.
THIS AGREEMENT, made and entered into this day of , 20 , by and between JOHN DOE (hereinafter referred to as “father”) and JANE DOE (hereinafter referred to as “mother”) is intended by the parties to be a Joint Parenting Agreement, as contemplated by and provided for in [legal authority].
The parties agree that mother shall have sole custody of their three (3) minor children, JOSEPH DOE, born (date), JEFFREY DOE, born (date), and JOHNNY DOE, born (date); and
The parties have further agreed that the residential circumstances of each parent favor this award of custody.
NOW, THEREFORE, THE PARTIES HEREBY AGREE AS FOLLOWS:
- Sole Custody. The parties have carefully weighed and considered the question of the custody of their minor children. In doing so, they have been guided solely by considerations touching upon the children’s welfare. The parties acknowledge and agree that mother shall have sole custody of their minor children, JOSEPH DOE, born (date), JEFFREY DOE, born (date), and JOHNNY DOE, born (date).
- Decision Making. The parties agree that all decisions affecting the best interests and welfare of JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY on issues involving their health, education, summer, and extra-curricular activities shall be made by mother. However, mother agrees to provide information to, and receive input from, husband in connection with these issues.
- Parenting Time Schedule. The parties further agree that father shall have visitation with the children, JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY, as often as practical—given the schedules of the father and the minor children. The parties believe that frequent contact between the children and their father is in the children’s best interests, and will facilitate their upbringing, and is, therefore, to be encouraged. The parties further agree that the father shall have the following minimum parenting time with JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY:a) Alternating weekends from after school on Friday until 6:00 p.m. Sunday. Father shall pick up children at school and return them to mother’s home;
b) Additionally, father shall be entitled to one additional weekday (Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday) each week, which he shall pick by the twenty-seventh (27th) of the month prior to the next month, notifying mother of same by email on the twenty-seventh (27th) day of each month. This visitation shall also be from after school until 6:00 p.m., unless on a Monday when the boys have Scout meeting, in which case, husband shall return them immediately after the meeting at 8:30 p.m.
c) The following legal and religious holidays on an alternating basis, with mother to have the first of said holidays: Thanksgiving Day through the weekend; Independence Day; Memorial Day; Labor Day; Easter; and the Christmas holiday to be divided into two (2) periods, the first period to commence at 4:00 p.m. Christmas Eve and end at 10:00 a.m. Christmas Day, and the second period to commence at 10:00 a.m. Christmas Day until 8:00 p.m. Christmas Day night, with the parties to each have the children for approximately one-half of the children’s Christmas vacation from school, and one-half of the children’s spring vacation from school;
d) The parties shall each have the children on his or her own birthday and on Mother’s Day and/or Father’s Day, as may be appropriate, and shall alternate the children’s birthdays, with father having the children during odd-number years;
e) Each party shall also have exclusive parenting time with the children for a period of up to two weeks each summer in either July or August, the exact month of which shall be agreed upon by the parties on an annual basis, and which shall be the subject of written notices between the parties to be delivered via email annually by May 15. Wife shall have the right to first choice in even-number years, and husband shall have the right to first choice in odd-number years; and
f) Holiday, birthday, and Mother’s and/or Father’s Day parenting time, as specified hereinabove, shall take preference over weekend, Summer and vacation parenting time, and in the event husband is to have the children for a holiday which falls on a weekend wife is to have the children, or vice versa, the party entitled to have the children for the holiday shall have the children for said holiday, and the parties shall commence a new sequence of alternating weekend parenting time the following weekend.
- Mutual Cooperation and Respect. The parties agree and acknowledge that it is in the best interests of the minor children that both parents instill and generate an affection on the part of the minor children for their parents, and, in order to accomplish this, it is necessary that each party assume the responsibility of frequent association with, and attention to, the children, and further, that each party refrain from making any insulting, derogatory, or deprecatory remarks or comments about the other to, or in the presence of, the minor children. The parties shall also cooperate in accommodating the other who may wish to have the children for some special event or occasion.
- Access to School and Medical Records. The parties agree that each party shall be afforded access to the school and medical records of JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY. The parties further agree that, to the extent required by either a school district in which said minor children are enrolled, or a provider of medical services to said minor children, either party shall be authorized to (i) have access to information concerning JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY, and/or (ii) release information concerning JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY to any third party.
- Notification of Children’s Activities. The parties agree that wife will timely inform husband as to all school functions, meetings, and other activities in which JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY are involved, so as to enable husband to attend said events and be an integral part of said minor children’s involvement in same.
- Notification of Serious Illness. Each parent shall promptly inform the other of any serious illness of JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY which shall require medical attention while said minor children are in the physical possession of that parent. Emergency surgery necessary for the preservation of life or to prevent further serious injury or condition may be performed without consultation with wife, when necessary for the preservation of life or to prevent further serious injury; provided, however, that if time permits, wife shall be consulted, and, in any event, informed as soon as is reasonably possible.
- Notification of Other Health Problems. Both parents shall inform each other of any medical or health problems which arose while they had physical possession of JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY, when the information of said medical or health problem would aid the other parent in the care and treatment of said minor children. Both parents shall provide each other with any medications which JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY are taking at the time of the transfer of physical possession and with sufficient information to allow the parent assuming physical possession to obtain refills of that medication.
- Notice by E-Mail. The provision of notice hereunder shall be via email, only, except in the case of an emergency.
- Out of State Travel. Neither party shall remove JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY from the State of [State of residence] without leave of Court or by express written agreement of the parties. Notwithstanding the foregoing, either party may temporarily take said minor children to another State for vacation or for other good reason, upon reason- able notice to the other parent. In the event either party shall remove JOSEPH, JEFFREY, and JOHNNY from the State of [State of residence] for vacation or other good reason as contemplated herein, the removing party shall notify the other party of an address and telephone number where that party and said minor children may be reached in the event of an emergency.
- Invalid Provisions. In the event any court of competent jurisdiction should determine that any portion or portions, or provision or provisions, of this Agreement are void or unenforceable, said portion or portions, or provision or provisions, shall be stricken from the face of this Agreement, but the balance of this Agreement, and the terms and provisions thereof, shall remain in full force and effect.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the parties have hereunto set their hands and seals on the day and date first above written.
12 TIPS FOR MAKING YOUR PARENTING PLAN WORK
#1 Stick with the Schedule
Seeing the kids whenever you feel like it or whenever you have the time is not going to work. Unlike you, children must have structure in order to feel secure and develop normally. Simply showing up to see your kids at odd times causes stress on the children and their other parent. You must make time for your children based upon what they need, not what you need.
Stick with the parenting schedule as if it is the most important thing in your life. Your children are expecting you. Think about how they feel when they are all packed up and ready to go and you show up two hours late or not at all. What does that tell your children about how much they matter to you?
Imagine how they are affected when you don’t get them home until after midnight and they have to get up six hours later for school?
If you know you will be late, let your ex-spouse and children know immediately. Better yet, plan ahead, reschedule activities that interfere with your parenting schedule, and don’t be late.
#2 Realize You Cannot Control Your Ex-Spouse’s Parenting
Divorced parents often differ in the parenting styles and opinions on how children should be raised. Differences of opinion on everything from diet to discipline and from hairstyles to hygiene are common. Some parents run a tight ship; others prefer a more relaxed environment.
Differences in parenting styles are apt to become even more pronounced once you are in separate households.
In the huge majority of cases, when one parent describes the other parent as inept, it is simply a difference in parenting styles. Ask yourself if you actually believe the other parent would hurt your children. If the answer is no, then you need to relax and learn to accept what you cannot change. For example, you can’t control what your spouse feeds or doesn’t feed your children, so long as she doesn’t let them go hungry. But if good nutrition is your concern, think about what you can do. You can make sure that your children are fed properly when they are with you. You can pay for their school lunches or even school breakfasts.
You can send vitamins with them and follow up to make sure they are taking them. If the children are really in danger, a court will be willing to intervene.
Otherwise, let it go and do the best you can while they are with you.
If you couldn’t change your spouse while you were married, your certainly can’t change him now. The only thing you can control is your- self and how you parent. Unless your spouse is guilty of child abuse or neglect, no court is going to interfere in his parenting of the children while they are in his care. If he isn’t providing what you think the children need, then it is your job to see that they get it while they are with you. Other than that, you do not have control of the situation.
#3 Plan Now for Sick Days and Emergencies
Decide now who is going to be called when your child is sick at school or there is an emergency. The job belongs to whoever can best minimize the economic impact on their finances. If mom is salaried and can make up the time whenever, and dad works on an hourly basis and can’t get away without getting in trouble, then it’s mom’s job. If dad is laid off due to winter weather, then it’s his job. Make sure the school has contact information for both of you.
#4 Try a Dual Calendar System
Get two calendars. Highlight dad’s days of parenting in blue and mom’s in pink, or let your children choose two different colors. Each parent should have an identical calendar showing parenting time to put up in his or her home where the children can see it. Even very young children will be able to see in advance when they will see dad or mom next. Like regular meals and regular bedtimes, the calendars add to the sense of structure children need to feel secure.
#5 Write to Each Other if Direct Communication Is a Problem
Try keeping a kid’s log. This is a notebook that goes back and forth with the children. Use it to communicate important information about your children to your ex-spouse if direct contact is a problem. Write in it anything you want your ex-spouse to know about the children, their activities, and any problems. Read what your ex-spouse has written and write a response so your ex-spouse knows you have gotten the message.
Alternatively, you can email each other each time the children switch homes or more often to report on their progress and needs.
Don’t give your children verbal messages to pass on to your ex-spouse. If you cannot speak directly to your ex, then put it in writing, and do not share the contents with your children. You can make the kids mail carriers, but don’t make them messengers. Communication with your ex-spouse may not be easy, but it’s absolutely necessary for your kids.
#6 Share School Notices and Schoolwork
Get a large manila envelope for each child. Write the child’s name on it. Put into the envelop copies of any notices you receive from your child’s school or teacher that your spouse should be aware of. Include some of the child’s schoolwork and artwork so the other parent can keep up with the child’s progress.
#7 Stop the Transfer Wars
Is there a battle every time the children switch homes? Eventually, your spouse may decide to cut back or even stop seeing the children. Although that might seem a good outcome to you, it’s a disaster for your children. Moreover, a parent who stops seeing the children sometimes decides to stop paying child support
, which is a disaster for both you and your children.
Avoid engaging your spouse during transfers. If necessary minimize your contact with him or her. Agree that the exchange will take place at the curb and be as perfunctory as possible. Some parents even decide to make the switch at a neutral spot. One idea is the supermarket during the weekly shopping expedition.
During the exchange if what you have to say isn’t about the kids, don’t bring it up. If it’s about the kids and you can’t be civil, put it in a note.
#8 Defuse Anger by Detaching
Anger is the most common reason that parenting plans fail. The best way to solve the anger associated with the shared parenting is to detach yourselves from each other emotionally. Try to see your former spouse, not as a failed life partner, but as your children’s other parent. One technique that may work is to treat your ex like a business associate. Think of each contact with him or her about the children as a business meeting. Develop an agenda and stick to it.
#9 Don’t Use Your Children as Spies
Don’t pump your children for information about mom’s new boy- friend or dad’s latest expensive purchase. You can listen to what they have to say, and certainly follow up on hazards to their health. However the real danger is that you may make the children feel like traitors to their other parent. Hurt the relationship between your children and their other parent, and you will hurt your children.
#10 Don’t Overreact to Decompression
Children who go from one home to another may need time to adjust to the differences, unwind, and prepare time for the next day.
“Decompression” happens when children change households and go from one parenting style to another. It occurs very commonly when children go from a household with little or no structure to one with that is highly structured. In the less structured household, your daughter may feel insecure. To compensate, she may try to create structure and actually assume control of when and how things are done. When she comes back to your house, she no longer needs to be in control, so she is momentarily disoriented by her change in roles. This causes her to act out, defying your structure when she is accustomed to creating her own.
The best way of handling the decompression is to avoid overreacting to it. Send the child to a secure, familiar place such as her bedroom to engage in a quiet activity like reading. It’s not a punishment, just some down time. A couple of hours in her own space will usually allow enough time for her to adjust.
#11 Pay Your Child Support
If you resent paying child support because you think of it as money you are giving to your ex-spouse, you need to adjust your thinking. Every time you think it’s for your spouse, remember it’s for your kids. If writing the check makes you mad, have it withheld from your pay and transferred to your ex.
#12 Keep a Parent’s Log
A parent’s log is a record of the interaction between parents. It can be used to record when things work, when they don’t, or even areas where improvement could be sought. Parent’s logs serve several purposes. First, writing down what works will encourage you. When something goes wrong, by reading the log you can remind yourself of successes, and give yourself a pat on the back for everything you did well. Second, the log can provide you with an emotional release. You can dispel any anger your feel for your ex-spouse in a non-destructive manner. And finally, your log may serve as evidence. In a “he said, she said” arena, the parent who presents an organized and concise representation of events may prevail. There is a line between bad parenting and criminal activity. Appropriately, courts rarely get involved in situations in which they are required to assess the difference between what is good parenting and what is bad. Courts only get involved when the actual, physical welfare of your children is an issue. And those situations require evidence for the court to take action. One of the forms that evidence can take is your log.
What kind of things should you log that might be serious enough to seek court intervention? You’ll need to use some common sense. A judge will probably not care that the kids had cold pizza for breakfast, stayed up a half-hour beyond their bed time, or went to school wearing mismatched socks.
But a judge probably will care if the children are never buckled into their car seats, or are left unsupervised, or if your spouse smells of alcohol when dropping them off. These situations endanger the children. Keep a record of them. The judge is also likely to care if your spouse leaves the children in the care of another family member or babysitter for most of the time he or she is supposed to be spending with them. If your spouse isn’t engaged in the lives of your children, the court may find any of his or her demands related to parenting without basis.
WHEN YOU CAN’T AGREE ON A PARENTING PLAN
Mediation Is Encouraged and May Even Be Required by Courts
Courts encourage divorcing parents to resolve the difficult issue of post-divorce parenting between themselves. Initially, many parents dispute custody of the children. Fortunately, these disputes are most often resolved through negotiations with the help of lawyers. When negotiations are unsuccessful, parents next turn to mediation.
Many courts require divorcing parents to attempt to settle their parenting dispute through mediation before taking the issue to court. In some cases, court intervention may be unavoidable, for example when a parent is mentally impaired, when abuse or neglect is suspected, or when one parent attempts to alienate the children from the other or threatens to take off with the children. Otherwise, courts want you to understand that you and your spouse must take responsibility for what is going to happen with your children in the future. A less-than-perfect agreement that is negotiated through mediation is usually better than having a complete stranger, who barely knows you and probably will never even see your children, decide what is going to happen to them.
How Mediation Works
Mediation is gaining broad acceptance in the resolution of custody disputes. The parents meet with a mediator who has completed a significant (40 hours plus) amount of mediation training, and also has a body of experience and expertise in the family law field. The sessions usually involve only the parties and the mediator. Their lawyers are available to provide preparation and advice from the sidelines, but do not usually attend the sessions. It will typically take two to three one- to-two-hour sessions to achieve success in a custody dispute. For more about mediation, see Ch. 7
Preparing for Custody Mediation
The goal of the mediator is to get you and your spouse to come to an agreement, not necessarily to do what is in the best interests of your child. Your lawyer can acquaint you with the mediation process, its positives and negatives, and help you develop an approach to the process and a reason- able settlement position with respect to the parenting issues presented.
Proper preparation for mediation requires you to develop specific parenting plans, and to identify items that are negotiable and items that are deal breakers. You may even find it helpful to role play with your lawyer the contemplated mediation to get a sense of what to expect and how to react.
Counseling and Education
Before or in conjunction with mediation, you and your spouse may find various therapeutic interventions helpful. These include divorce counseling with a mental health professional, individual counseling, and parenting effectiveness courses. The court may require you to participate in some of these interventions or your lawyers or mediator may refer you to them.
Collaborative Divorce May Be Another Alternative
In “collaborative divorce,” the parties retain independent counsel, and enlist the services of psychologists, counselors, therapists, and financial advisers to develop, in a “collaborative” setting, a global agreement on all of the divorce issues. This growing trend generally requires that if the parties are not able to reach an accord, the lawyers and professionals will not be involved in the subsequent divorce litigation. The parties will be required to hire new counsel and experts.
As the costs of divorce litigation continue to soar, collaborative divorce will no doubt be used more and more by parents who are will- ing to set aside individual agendas for the greater good of the family as a whole. For more on collaborative divorce, see Ch. 7
Court-Appointed Investigators and Professional Interventions
If mediation and therapeutic interventions fail to produce a parenting agreement, courts turn next to other professionals for input, in the hope that they might facilitate settlement or assist the court in making the decision.
Guardian ad Litem and Social Service Investigations
A guardian ad litem is an attorney who is especially trained and experienced in the practice of family law. The court appoints a guardian ad litem to conduct an investigation. The guardian ad litem will interview the parents, children, and other people who know the family. These people may be teachers, coaches, pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and just about anyone who has ever spent any time with you, your spouse, or your children. When the investigation is complete, the guardian ad litem will make a recommendation to the court on the contested parenting issues, ranging from legal custody to physical custody to the actual living arrangements and time sharing schedule for the children. Instead of a guardian ad litem, a court appointed social services worker may perform the investigation. The report of the guardian ad litem or other professional offers yet another opportunity to attempt to reach a settlement. Litigation in general, and custody litigation in particular, has decidedly negative impacts on parents and children. The hope of settling these very difficult and important issues should never be abandoned. You should leave no stone unturned in your efforts to settle your custody and parenting issues outside of court.
Downside to Guardian ad Litem Investigations
The appointment of a guardian ad litem has some drawbacks. It tends to keep the parents as legal enemies. It focuses the parents on past grudges, arguments, and disappointment, rather than the future. Finally, it involves the family and the children in an intrusion by a stranger that reveals to the children that there is parental conflict. These are all good reasons to try to reach a settlement before matters get this far.
Therapists and Counselors
If you both agree, therapists and counselors who have worked with you or your family might be called on to offer opinions toward resolution.
Forensic Custody Evaluations
What Is a Forensic Custody Evaluation?
After a guardian ad litem or social services investigation, the final step before trial in some contested custody cases is a forensic custody evaluation by a licensed clinical psychologist. On its own initiative or in response to a request from one or both parents, the court may appoint a psychological professional to conduct an evaluation of the parents and their children.
The outcome of the psychological evaluation often leads the way to renewed efforts at settlement. Given the substantial cost of custody litigation, a parent facing an adverse recommendation from a psycho- logical professional will often agree to a settlement.
The forensic custody evaluator’s report is usually long, detailed, and includes observations and findings made not only from clinical observations of the parents and their children, but results from batteries of psychological testing administered to the parents and often, the children as well.
Does Your Case Require One?
Not every contested custody case requires a forensic custody evaluation. Most judges take the position that a psychological evaluation is not required simply because custody is at issue. However, when an evaluation is performed, judges typically place a lot of weight on the results. Forensic custody evaluations should be used sparingly. As a general rule, they are most helpful when a parent exhibits indications of mental conditions beyond the usual grief process that accompanies a divorce case.
Weigh the Costs against the Expected Benefits
These examinations are expensive. The cost of a forensic custody evaluation in a metropolitan area often exceeds $15,000 to $20,000, just to render a written report. You and your lawyer need to discuss the anticipated costs in detail before deciding whether to undertake the evaluation. A report that you can’t get because the expert hasn’t been paid is of little use to you. The significant costs of these examinations need to be weighed against the benefit to be obtained from the expert’s testimony.
Preparing for a Psychological Evaluation
Certainly, when interviewed by the evaluator, you must tell the truth. However, you can do more to exert some influence over the process by properly preparing for the psychological evaluation.
The psychological evaluation process can be one of the most stressful exercises in an extremely stressful process. However, this process can turn the course of the litigation and perhaps head you in the direction of renewed settlement negotiations instead of protracted litigation. Take the time and make the effort to properly prepare for the evaluation. It might be the most important preparation you can make during the divorce litigation.
Should You Waive the Doctor/Therapist Privilege?
You will need to deal with the thorny issue of whether to provide the evaluator with releases to talk to doctors and prior or current treating therapists. There is no privilege between you and the children’s teachers. They can testify about whatever you have told them. However, consider carefully whether you wish to waive the doctor-patient or therapist-patient privileges.
Your refusal to provide the requested releases might affect the evaluator’s final report and recommendations. However, the evaluator’s inability to talk to your doctors may be less of a problem than a report that includes your prior suicidal thoughts discussed in therapy and unknown to anyone outside the therapist-patient relationship. Medical treatment or testing for sexually transmitted diseases can also provide a fertile field for exploration by the evaluator and opposing counsel. You need to be completely candid with your lawyer. Tell him or her about these issues before you make the initial appointment with the evaluator.
Get Organized to Control Costs
You can help control the costs of the evaluation by being organized.
The more organized you are, the more you can keep costs down.
Prepare a list of people you want the psychologist to talk to before your first meeting, complete with phone numbers and a brief statement as to why you believe that each person has something important to add to the process. Provide the evaluator with copies of relevant documents, such as school records, report cards, medical records, and police reports.
Psychological Testing for You and Your Children
You will likely be given a battery of psychological tests, such as the MMPI-2, the MCMI-II and III, Sentence Completion, Draw a Person, etc. With respect to the MMPI and MCMI tests, do not try to overanalyze the questions; simply pick the answer that is mostly true or mostly false, as appropriate. Honesty in these tests is important, because efforts to paint oneself in an overly positive light will be detected and pointed out by the evaluator.
The children, too, are often tested, most commonly by the Bricklin Perceptual Scales and the Perception of Relationships Test (PORT). These tests are usually not administered to children under four years of age, and you definitely do not want to try to manipulate the children prior to testing. You can, and should, however, set up appointments between the children and the evaluator with the children’s schedule in mind. It is not smart to schedule an appointment at a time when the children usually nap, or have just returned from a visit with the other parent. Do not bring sick or tired children to an appointment with an evaluator.
Develop Two or Three Themes to Share with the Evaluator
In any given custody case, there are usually many reasons why you feel you should be awarded custody. One effective way to prepare for the evaluation is to develop two or three major reasons, or “themes” as to why it is in the children’s best interest that they be placed in or remain in your custody. Focus on these themes and build your case around them. Follow Johnny Mercer’s advice and “accentuate the positive.” Hammer the themes of your case in positive terms, by concentrating on why you are good, not why the other parent is bad. Avoid cataloging your complaints about your spouse. If your spouse is truly bad, this should become apparent to the evaluator during the evaluation process.
Avoid hyperbole, hysteria, and histrionics. Also, long rambling recitations of the other parent’s claimed inadequacies usually turn the evaluator off. Clearly, in some cases, there are real issues of abuse, neglect, or a simple failure to be around when the children have had needs. In these cases, try to be as objective in your reporting of these problems as you can without dwelling on a litany of negatives. In most cases, custody contests involve two people who have divergent, but not evil, ideas about what is in the best interests of their children. Keep this in mind, and put your best foot forward, being careful not to step on the foot of your spouse.
Not all themes can be positive. Mental health/illness, domestic violence, anger management issues, criminal problems, substance abuse, parental alienation, and interference with contact with the children are difficult to place in positive terms. However, these types of issues are usually well-documented by other people. It’s best that this documentation comes from these sources, and that you not dwell on these obvious personality faults. Themes such as irresponsibility, putting individual needs above the children’s, competence to parent, absence from the home, or delegating parenting to others, explicitly or by default, are easier to manage.
Paint Mental Pictures
Remember to always think of the big picture, and focus on why you are a better parent, not why the other parent is a bad parent. To that end, try to paint mental pictures or images for the evaluator. To tell the evaluator that you should have custody because it’s in “the best interest of the children” is not really very effective. What does “the best interest of the children” look like? It is much more effective to say that “While my husband worked two jobs, I stayed home in our little apartment with our two small children and did the cooking and cleaning, etc.”
Most evaluators hear a lot of stories. Try to tell a truthful but engaging version of your lives by being descriptive, and keep in mind that there should not be any “whining” in the evaluation process. You can always slip in the bad conduct of your spouse in an almost apologetic way: “He worked a lot, and needed to unwind when he got home, so I suppose that is why he drank so much.”
Keep in Touch with Your Lawyer
Lastly, remember to stay in touch with your lawyer at every stage of the process, so he or she can find out how the evaluation is proceeding and be sure that the evaluator is not doing anything unusual. For instance, there are protocols for the manner and order of administering psychological testing. You lawyer will want to be sure they are followed. This debriefing process can prove a useful source of material for cross examination of the evaluator, should that be necessary by virtue of the outcome of the evaluation.