When couples with children divorce, custody time is often the focus of the parenting plan—if there is a parenting plan at all. By now, it’s widely accepted that the younger the child, the more frequent the transitions and that week-on-week-off is typically reserved for older children. If the couple is fortunate enough to be amicable, custody decisions may be all that are necessary in the marital settlement agreement. But, in the case of a divorce with conflict, the more detailed the agreement, the less the future conflict—and the better experience your children will have. The following eight topics are sometimes overlooked in an MSA, but can help to keep co-parenting boundaried and more enjoyable for all.
Daily Decision-Making Autonomy
Are there circumstances that dictate that you should agree, up-front, that bedtime, homework, diet, videogaming and other daily occurrences should remain consistent across both homes? If so, determine those rules up front and put them in your agreement. Or, agree that you will each have autonomy to determine how things run in your own home—and if that is your choice, stick to it. Don’t get upset if one parent has a 10pm bedtime, lets the child run around with sticks and play video games all day! This is what you agreed, and—your child will be fine. Navigating different rules in different places is part of his life experience. (For a child with special needs, however, see this article.)
Clothing and Possessions
I once had clients pay me to mediate a jacket. It was symbolic, of course, of a bigger issue. But, one parent continually purchased clothing that wound up at the other’s home, never to be seen again. And, that parent was mad. Agree up front about things that are purchased for the children. Will they move back and forth? Be re-distributed every now and then? Or will you agree that things purchased are the possession of the child and it doesn’t matter where they land?
First Option for Childcare
At very hot-button issue is when one parent discovers the other is going out of town and leaving the children with either a nanny or new partner. Decide now whether you will always give the other the right-of-first-refusal for childcare to avoid future arguments.
After-school activities don’t take your custody schedule into consideration, and often spread all over the week. If one parent signs the child up for soccer and the practices fall during the other parent’s time, it can lead to frustration and conflict. Agree now on how you will handle this. Will you consult with each other on sign-ups or only sign your child up for things that fall during your time? If you signed your child up, paid for it, and it only occurs during your time, will you gracefully allow the other parent to attend the game, recital or martial art test?
While a lot of focus goes into the weekly schedule, sometimes the annual schedule is forgotten. How will you divide holidays? Many parents choose alternating years—but then neglect to decide at what point the regular custody schedule resumes. Sunday night? Monday mornings? What if Monday is the holiday? Iron this out now and save yourselves the headache later.
My client once proudly called to tell me her ex-husband dared attempt keep their child into her custody time because the child was too ill to get out of bed—and she’d called the police on him. It’s crazy that that should ever have to go into your parenting agreement. But, if your relationship is hostile, consider it.
Sometimes weddings and funerals in your ex’s family will happen on your time. Remember that your child is also part of that family, and it will be important for them to attend. It’s a two-way street. Consider writing this into your parenting plan if you suspect it may cause conflict if it occurs.
Introduction of New Partners
One of the most time-consuming topics in mediation is typically when it becomes okay to introduce new partners to the children and how. Especially if one partner is not the driving force in the divorce, this can be a very emotionally charged topic—but one that needs to be addressed for the sake of the children. Many parents will agree on a certain amount of time (6 months? A year?) of a serious relationship before introductions, to avoid the child becoming attached to someone who may not stay in their lives. Some agree to introduce a new partner to the other parent first—or at least to give the parent notice that the introduction will occur, so there is no surprise.
There are many topics that can and should go into your Parenting Plan, including changes in schedules, exchanging information, cell phones, teen parties and driving, parental substance use, etc. The more detailed your plan is, the less conflict down the road. And, for your children, reducing conflict with your co-parent should be your primary concern.