How Detailed Should Your Parenting Plan Be?

Mother holding a baby writing her schedule on a white board - BartonWood

Creating a parenting plan is an essential part of any divorce involving minor children, or case in which child custody is an issue. Your parenting plan is the “private law” of your co-parenting relationship, outlining everyone’s rights and responsibilities, and clarifying what needs to happen if rights get violated or responsibilities aren’t met. How detailed should your parenting plan be? The answer is something out of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Not too much detail, not too little detail—just right.

Of course, that answer isn’t too helpful, so let’s unpack it a little bit. It might seem like it’s a good idea to plan for every possible contingency, especially if you have a co-parent who has been unreliable in the past. On the other hand, you are often bound by the same terms as your co-parent, and you may find yourself hamstrung by some of the restrictive terms you wanted in the plan to control his or her behavior.

So what is the answer? How do you know when to be very detailed, and when to be more flexible? It helps to think about the purpose of your parenting plan.

What Is Your Parenting Plan For?

If you have joint physical and/or legal custody in Utah, you must have a parenting plan. The purpose of the plan is to make life less stressful and more predictable for your kids. The mechanism for doing that is by you and your co-parent making certain decisions in advance, and deciding how you will resolve disagreements.

There are certain provisions that must be in a parenting plan, including provisions for resolving any future disputes between you and your co-parent; allocation of decision-making authority and residential provisions for your child; and provisions that deal with notice and parent-time responsibilities in the event that either of you relocate. The plan can also contain other provisions relating to your child’s welfare.

It helps to look at your parenting plan through the lens of what is going to help your kids most, rather than what is going to help you “get” your ex when they mess up, deliberately or otherwise. Keeping your kids’ best interests at heart will be an excellent guide as to how precise you need to be in designing your parenting plan.

Let’s look at an example to illustrate this principle. Let’s say you have two kids who are 7 and 10, and they live with you most of the time but spend regular weekends, some holidays, and half of the summer with their other parent. You want to make sure that you get to see and talk to them while they are away, especially for an extended period.

You could put in your parenting plan that the other parent will make your children available to Skype or FaceTime with you every evening at 7 p.m. That would provide certainty and reliability, which are important. But it might also interrupt your kids’ play with friends or an outing with their other parent to have to stop at that exact moment to touch base with you.

You could avoid this by not putting in the plan any requirements about when or how you would communicate with the kids, but that could create other problems. Your ex might always declare the kids “too busy” to talk when you call or Skype. You might go a week or longer without being in touch.

An alternative to both extremes is to focus on the interest you’re trying to serve (keeping parent and kids connected while they’re apart) rather than a specific position (parent and kids must communicate on a certain rigid schedule). You might want to specify, say, that when kids are apart from one parent, the parent can check in at least every other day by Skype or Facetime around 7:00 p.m., or at another time to be scheduled by text with the other parent. The kids are free to call or Facetime the parent they are away from whenever they want.

An arrangement like this meets everyone’s needs: it ensures you will talk to your kids at least every other day, and that they’ll be able to call you whenever needed. Your kids know they’ll get to touch base with you (certainty) but won’t have to turn down a trip to the ice cream stand with friends after dinner because it would cause them to miss a scheduled call (flexibility).

Negotiating the Terms of Your Plan

Negotiating the terms of a parenting plan can be exhausting. There are many contingencies to consider. How will summer vacations with the kids get planned? Who gets to spend the kids’ birthdays with them? What if one parent wants to move out of state? It can make your head spin trying to imagine all the issues you need your plan to cover, let alone trying to resolve those issues with your co-parent.

Having an experienced Utah family law attorney can make the process of creating a parenting plan go a lot more smoothly. You have probably never negotiated a parenting plan before. Your attorney has negotiated hundreds. She can help you know what is important to address in your plan, and when to be flexible (or not) in creating its terms.

Divorce or a custody dispute can be grueling. It may be tempting to concede a point just to stop the fighting, or to dig in your heels just to keep your ex from getting their way. Unfortunately, neither of these is helpful to your kids in the long run. It’s best to work with an attorney who can not only advise you objectively, but advocate effectively for you and your kids when you need someone in your corner.

If you have questions about Utah parenting plans or custody matters, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.

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