A parenting agreement is the roadmap for how you and your spouse will co-parent your children in separate households. Even though you and your spouse may no longer have a relationship as a married couple, you will always have a relationship as parents. The parenting agreement describes how you will make decisions relating to the children, when each of you will spend time with the children, and how you will communicate regarding the children now and in the future.
How to Successfully Negotiate a Parenting Agreement
Successfully negotiating a parenting agreement requires you and your ex to decide, at a minimum, four very important things:
- What day-to-day schedule will work best for your schedules and your kids?
- How will you share parenting responsibilities during holidays and school breaks?
- How will you and your ex communicate with each other regarding the children?
- How will you and your ex share the costs of raising the children?
Let's look at each of these in turn.
1. The Day-to-Day Schedule
Before you can determine a day-to-day schedule, you should think carefully about the things going on in your life, your ex's life, and the children's lives. Each of you has your own responsibilities and places you need to be. Some parents work regular hours. Others have schedules that fluctuate from week to week. Some parents can work from home. Some must travel extensively. Some jobs and employers are flexible, while others are not. Similarly, your children have their own schedules. They probably have school commitments. They may also be involved in sports, music, camps, or other extracurricular activities that require transportation and parental involvement.
When you and your ex lived in the same house, you most likely covered for each other. When one of you was working or had a commitment, the other probably managed the household and made sure the children's needs were attended to. Now that you have separate homes, things are different. Parenting with your ex can't be improvised. It requires planning and coordination.
A good schedule will do at least three important things. First, it will be consistent and predictable. Second, it will permit both parents to have a meaningful relationship with the children. Third, it will allow for revision as things change in your lives and the children's lives.
Consistent and predictable
A consistent and predictable schedule is one that is regular, as opposed to one that is determined day-by-day or week-by-week. The children and you will know in advance which parent will be the on-duty parent. They will know who is responsible for greeting them after school, preparing the meal, and making sure that the homework is checked. They will know who is driving them to practice, who is responsible for washing their uniforms, and who will be there to tuck them into bed and kiss them goodnight. A regular schedule will also permit you to plan for the use of your off-duty time.
A good schedule permits both parents to have a meaningful relationship with the children. Children do better in divorce when they maintain loving, supportive relationships with both parents. There is simply no substitute for spending time with your children. But this does not necessarily equate to equal time.
Some couples insist upon having an equal number of overnights with the children each month. Often, lawyers tell them that that number matters when calculating child support. What matters less than the amount of time is the quality of the time. How do you spend your time with your children? Do you know what is going on in their lives? Do they come to you for help working out the little problems, or to share the highs and lows of their day? Do they view you as an occasional visitor? Or do you provide them with physical and emotional support, structure, supervision, and discipline?
Revisions when necessary
A good schedule allows for revision when things change in a parent's life or the children's lives. A parenting schedule that is appropriate for an infant is not the same schedule that will be appropriate for a teenager. As children get older, they become more independent. The type of structure and supervision they require changes. The risks and dangers that they are exposed to are different. Similarly, a parent's relocation or remarriage, or the birth of a new step-sibling, might warrant changes in the schedule. A good schedule will be one that permits the parents a reasonable opportunity to see what is working and what needs adjustment, and then to make the changes.
2. Sharing Time During Holidays and School Breaks
When you and your ex were living together, the two of you and your children had your own customs, rituals, and traditions during the holidays. Divorced parents must create new holiday rituals for their children. Often they will observe the customs and traditions of their parents and families. You and your ex will need to decide how to accommodate and support the new customs and traditions each of you creates with the children. Some couples choose to alternate holidays from year to year. Others decide that the children should enjoy time with both parents every holiday.
School breaks are another logistical challenge, particularly if you and your ex both work full time. You will need to decide whether the normal, day-to-day schedule remains in place during school breaks, or whether you would prefer a different schedule. Will you or your spouse travel with the children? How will you arrange camps, track-out programs, and child care?
3. Communicating About the Children
As co-parents and ex-spouses, you need to learn to communicate with each other about the children without arguing about the things that ruined your marriage. You and your ex need to determine the format for such communications and set boundaries. Some parents, for example, schedule a five- or ten-minute phone call one night each week. They agree to limit their conversation to the children's schedule, progress, and needs. Others prefer to communicate by email or text message, subject to an agreement that the other parent will provide a response within a specific time. Others use apps or shared calendars to communicate about upcoming events and the kids' schedule.
Here, the Golden Rule applies. You should inform your ex of the things that you would like to be informed of, particularly as it relates to the kids' health, progress in school, and physical and emotional well-being. And you should not make unilateral decisions relating to the children if you would resent your ex making such a decision without consulting you first. Even though you are no longer married, you still owe your ex a measure of respect and courtesy. After all, both of you share the same goals: to raise healthy, well-adjusted children and to be the very best parents you can be.
4. Sharing the Costs of Raising Children
A successful parenting agreement will also provide for the financial support of the children by both parents according to their means. Some parents elect to each pay certain expenses relating to the children. Others contribute funds monthly to a joint account to be used for such expenses. One item that is particularly important to discuss is health insurance and how parents will pay uncovered healthcare expenses.
When parents are unable to agree about how to support their children, North Carolina, like many other states, provides a default mechanism for allocating those costs. The North Carolina Child Support Guidelines consider the gross monthly incomes of both parents and the parenting schedule and determine the presumptively appropriate monthly contribution from each parent. One parent can compel the other to pay support by filing a lawsuit or by seeking assistance from the county Child Support Enforcement office.
Where to Get Help
At Vitrano Law and Mediation, we have helped numerous couples successfully negotiate parenting plans. Let us help you and your ex negotiate a parenting agreement that is tailored to your individual needs and the needs of your children. Give us a call today.