When a married couple with children decides to divorce, coming up with an agreement on how to continue acting as parents despite the separation is necessary. Whether or not the break up is amicable, the parents must set aside their differences, keep an open mind and put the needs of the child first. A lot of child custody cases are settled without having to go to court and letting a judge make the decision. This can happen when parents communicate openly and make informal negotiations with each other or through professional help (e.g. family mediators, therapists, collaborative law).
What is a parenting agreement?
When parents and other parties discuss and agree on the matters involving child custody, whether informally or via out-of-court procedures, the terms agreed upon are written in the form of an agreement containing the details of the negotiations. This is what is referred to as a parenting agreement, also known as settlement agreement or custody agreement in some states.
A parenting agreement contains a plan specifying how ex-spouses will split their time and decision-making for the children. This document helps facilitate a cordial post-divorce relationship between you and your ex-partner and decreases chances of dispute because expectations are made clear. Moreover, communication becomes easier and decisions on issues related to the children are discussed upfront. Parenting agreements can also be turned into a court order and be enforced in the event that your ex-partner does not fulfill the provisions of the agreement.
Topics to cover in a parenting agreement
Each parenting agreement is unique and will naturally differ from one family to another. However, the agreement should generally include the following issues:
- Living arrangements of the child/children (or physical custody)
- Who gets to make major decisions regarding the welfare and upbringing of the child/children (also known as legal custody)
- Schedule of visitation
- How the child/children will spend holidays, vacations and birthdays
- Financial matters, including daily expenses and child support
- Medical care
- Amount of contact with relatives, family friends and other parties
- How to deal with any changes to the agreement
These are just some of the customary and vital topics that a parenting agreement should tackle. The parents can tailor the agreement however they deem fit for their and their child’s needs.
Creating a parenting agreement
A parenting agreement can be created solely between you and your ex-spouse, or you can acquire the services of a mediator or other professionals on child custody. Here are the steps to creating a parenting agreement:
1. Collect all documents relevant to the case
If parents are currently going through divorce or custody proceedings, the necessary documents may include the following:
- Filed or received court documents (e.g. affidavit, summons, declaration, petition, etc).
- Court orders in relation to a divorce, legal separation, award of custody or paternity declaration
- Evaluations and reports from therapists, counselors, school officers or other people who know about your children and their behavior
- Earlier agreements mediated or negotiated between the spouses
- Correspondence from a lawyer, court official or mediator on divorce, separation, custody and other related matters
While some of these documents might not even be needed, having them ready can help make the creation of a parenting plan faster, particularly in the event of a divorce or separation.
2. Gather and review all the documents
Take your time to read through the documents you have collected. If there are matters that do not understand or if you need help in acquiring a document, employ the help of a professional such as an attorney, a paralegal or mediator. Most, if not all of them have the skills to help you with your parenting agreement.
3. Meet with your spouse for negotiations
After collecting all the requirements, the next step would be to meet with your partner (and a third party if you decide to hire a professional) to discuss the parenting plan. Take note that it is highly unlikely to come up with a mutually-acceptable agreement in just a single meeting. Make time for engagements with your partner until you come up with a parenting agreement that works well for the both of you.
4. Finalize the agreement
This is when you seal the deal. Once the terms have been laid out and the agreement is finalized, it is recommended that you include it into your divorce file and have it approved by the judge; it can either be filed separately or inserted into your final settlement agreement. What is important is that it is signed by the judge, making it an enforceable document. This is especially helpful when the other party refuses to live up to the terms of the agreement. You may simply go to court and have the judge impose the responsibility on the uncooperative party.