Whether you are going through a divorce for the first time or modifying an existing child custody matter, navigating the waters around developing an effective parenting plan can seem daunting. Parents must not only consider their schedule but, those of the other parent. They must also consider whether their relationship with the other parent will allow them to co-parent effectively. Nevertheless, regardless of each parent's situation and preferences, the parents, as well as the court, are expected to give the most weight to what is in the best interest of the child.
In Missouri, developing a parenting plan involves determining both physical and legal custody. Further, in each of those areas, the parties or the court must determine whether they will exercise joint or sole custody. If you are facing a child custody matter and are drafting a parenting plan, it is essential to know what factors the court will consider in making a custody determination.
Physical Custody and the Visitation Schedule
In Missouri, under most circumstances, the parties share physical custody of the children. Then, the parties will follow the Visitation Schedule in the Parenting Plan as it answers the question of where and with whom the child will be at what times. But many parents find that finding that answer can be more challenging. Where will the child spend birthdays? Holidays? Summer break? What about vacations? Can you take a vacation with your child if it interferes with the other parent's parenting time?
An effective parenting plan answers these questions so that the parties can have accurate expectations about when they will see their children. Parenting plans should set forth a custody schedule that explains which parent will be with the children at any given time during an ordinary week. Beyond that, it should list where the children will be on major holidays and birthdays. Many parents choose to alternate holidays, often alternating years as well. For example, one parent may have the child on Independence Day on even years, while the other parent has the child on odd years.
While this simplistically answers where and when the child will be, a well-drafted parenting plan goes further. It should outline when and how a parent may contact their child when they are with the other parent. It should outline where custody exchanges will occur and at what time. For more significant matters, it will outline the procedure for when one parent seeks to relocate with the child.
Legal custody is often more confusing when facing a custody matter for the first time. Simply put, legal custody refers to who will make the major decisions in the child's life. In Missouri, the law makes a strong preference for joint legal and substantially shared visitation. As such, in most cases, parents will exercise joint legal custody. In these cases, the parenting plan should outline how the parties will navigate the decision-making process. But for some parents, the stress of co-parenting can be too much, and the parents remain diametrically opposed on most matters. In those cases, one party will exercise sole legal custody and make the major decisions for the child on their own. A parenting plan will always clearly identify which parent will have legal custody of the child or whether the parties will share joint legal custody.
A well-crafted parenting plan should also detail what types of decisions are major decisions and which are minor. Major decisions usually involve choices that will have a significant impact on the child. They typically include things like choice of school, medical care, healthcare providers, etc. Minor decisions are the daily decisions about the child. These typically fall outside the scope of legal custody and may be made solely by the parent exercising their parenting time. These decisions include things like bedtime, chores, choice of clothing, etc. Most importantly, what do you and your ex-spouse want your life and co-parenting to look like after your divorce that best works for your family's particular needs.
Although the questions of physical and legal custody have been answered, a proper parenting plan will provide for a few other provisions. It should answer how the parties will communicate amongst one another. For some co-parents, communication is not an issue, and they may discuss matters relating to the children in person, over the phone, or via text message. But for others, communicating is more of a challenge. In these cases, the parties may choose to utilize parenting communication software such as Our Family Wizard ®, which allows the parties to communicate in a manner that memorializes the conversation in the event of future disputes.
Further, parenting plans should contemplate what may occur if there exists a dispute between the parties concerning the parenting plan. Because of the stress that usually accompanies litigation, the parties may choose to include a provision that requires the parties to attempt mediation before filing an action in court, and the well-crafted plans are the most specific in this regard in terms of pre-identifying at least one mediator that the parties will agree to utilize. However, either party may file an action for contempt if the other refuses to follow the court-ordered parenting plan accompanying the judgment.
Finally, a parenting plan includes provisions concerning child support and expenses as they relate to the children. It should explain which party, if at all, will pay support to the other. It should determine whether support will be paid according to the Form 14 (Missouri's Child Support Calculation), or if the parties have agreed on a different amount. It should also discuss which party will be responsible for maintaining health, dental, and vision insurance. This includes contemplating which party will be responsible for medical costs not covered by insurance. Depending on the child's age, the parenting plan may also need to include provisions for determining which parent will be responsible for childcare or educational costs such as college tuition.
Child custody is often the most important question in a divorce proceeding or family matter involving unmarried parents. A well-drafted parenting plan that considers each of the factors above is essential to ensuring that all of the important aspects of your child's life are handled in the child's best interest. Although this article provides an overview of many of the important parts of a parenting plan, there is, even more, to be considered depending on your family's particular needs and your situation. At Ahearn Kershman, we have experienced family law attorneys who can help you navigate the process of drafting a parenting plan that works for you and your children.