Going through divorce process when there are children involved adds another level of complexity. Without children involved the divorce process is really just an administrative distribution of assets and liabilities, and sometimes continued spousal support, otherwise known as alimony. However, adding children into the mix changes everything. For example, you have to determine how you’re going to make decisions about everything related to the children. Should they sign up for after school activities; how late should they stay out with their friends; what type of foods should they eat; what doctors should they go to; where to go on vacation, etc.. Every decision you make after you get divorced can impact your children. For example, if you decide to go on vacation without them, how will that affect them? What will they think of you? The last thing you want is for your children to think you’ve abandoned them, and didn’t care about them enough to take them on vacation with you. This may not be your intention, but you cannot control what someone else thinks. However, with a well-defined parenting plan, you can minimize these types of misunderstandings.
The Objective of a Parenting Plan is Often Misconstrued
I was very surprised by my Attorney, when she asked me if I really wanted to keep my children in my life, and if it would be easier for me to just move on. I have to say that I was stunned! She later clarified that if I wanted to remain a part of my children’s lives, it was going to probably cost a lot in legal fees, and was I prepared for this. Something as simple as agreeing to share the responsibilities of raising the children, and more importantly, sharing the fun times, should be a no-brainer, but clearly isn’t.
When there is child support and alimony on the table in the divorce, sometimes the objectives of a parenting plan are misguided. The person that is looking to receive the child support may try to maximize the amount of overnights – which is used to calculate child support – while minimizing the loss of their personal free time. For example, in this case they would suggest a parenting plan where one parent would have the children every school night but not on weekends. This would allow this parent to be completely involved in the children’s lives during the week, but be 100% free of responsibility on the weekends for their children. Again, this would maximize this parent’s child support without impeding on their free time.
Does this work for the other parent? It may, but not in most cases. The kids would get to spend the weekends together, sharing quality time all weekend long. But that’s not the objective of a good parenting plan. This example focuses on one parents’ need for their personal time and the other parents’ need to spend time with their children. This is completely the wrong way to go about it.
The Real Objective of Parenting Plans
The real objective of establishing a good parenting plan is to put the needs of the children first. Perhaps the parents bring two different perspectives, two different skill sets, and two different approaches as to how to raise children and show love and affection. These differences shouldn’t matter as long as each parent is making the effort and working together with their ex-spouse towards satisfying the needs and requirements of the children and being there for them first and foremost. Both parents should be a part of the entirety of their children’s lives, not just during the week or on weekends.
Parenting Plans can be anything you want (within reason)
Legally speaking, although I am not a lawyer, your parenting plan can literally be anything you agree to. I have seen some very crazy parenting plans, but I’ve also seen some very crazy parents. Some plans specify the exact time of pickup and delivery of the children on specific dates within the month. Other plans are not so specific. You can agree on anything that you can put down on paper. But there generally are only a few basic plans. I will list a few of them here for reference:
- Weekends and Wednesday Nights – one parent has the kids every single Wednesday night and the weekends. Often, this is offset by limiting the weekend parent to only the first three weekends of the month.
- 2-2-3 – the parents alternate based on this schedule 2 nights, 2 nights and 3 nights.
- 2-2-5-5 – the parents alternate based on this schedule 2 nights, 2 nights, 5 nights and 5 nights.
- 3-4-4-3 – the parents alternate based on this schedule 3 nights, 4 nights, 4 nights and 3 nights.
- Alternating Weeks – The parents take their children for the entire week every other week.
- Alternating Weekends – one parent only gets to see his children every other weekend and the rest of the time is spent with the other parent.
These parenting plans are just examples and can be used for any situation, even though they may not be the best for the children.
Try to Keep it Simple, for the Children
Children are always learning and they are always under pressure whether it’s at school or with their friends, so you don’t want to overly complicate their lives with difficult parenting plans. If they know that every single Wednesday they are going to be at their Dad’s house that is a good thing. Making your kid remember some crazy pattern overlaid onto a calendar is not preferable. Even in this age of technology and smart phones, try to keep it simple. You don’t want them to be at school when they realize that they’re going to their Dad’s house tonight, but left their homework for tomorrow at their Mom’s house.
Midweek Overnights: the Hidden Agenda of Alienation
The purpose of a good parenting plan is to provide consistency and normalcy to the children’s lives. Children, like anyone, like a routine that they can rely on. Any disruption in their routine results in frustration. This is why I never understood the Weekends and Wednesday night’s parent plan. What this does is to require a child take all their stuff to school that they need for Wednesday and Thursday, so they can bring it to their other parent’s house Wednesday night, and then bring all this stuff back to school on Thursday. For example, they may have a class on Tuesday and Thursday that requires a book that she carries to school on Wednesday, making her carry more than she wants to.
While one parent shows up on Wednesday night to pick their child up, this frustration can often be noticed. For this reason, instead of the children sleeping at one parents’ house on Friday, Saturday and Wednesday, swap out that Wednesday for either Sunday or Thursday. This would allow for the same number of overnights, without the added frustration for the child of packing up everything twice during the week.
This makes a lot more sense to me, but I also understand that this approach may be used by one parent to alienate the children against the other parent. I have seen this in a case where the mother insisted on the Wednesday night stay over at the fathers, while the father wanted an extra night on the weekend, knowing that the midweek stay over would create frustration for the children. As the children got older they began to resent their father because the mother told the children that their father insisted upon the Wednesday night stay over. Children are not to be used as tools for revenge. After the divorce each parent should work amicably with their ex-spouse regardless of the lifestyle and choices they have made.
The Concept of Nesting: You won’t believe this.
One of the goals during the divorce process, is to try to maintain the status quo for the sake of the children. That means, let’s not allow the divorce to impact the lives of the children. We all know that this is nearly impossible. During the divorce, all plans try to keep the children in the same school and in the same neighborhood will most likely not be met because keeping the marital home is often not possible. An even greater challenge is to take the family home, which is typically a house, of which the costs and expenses are paid for by the two earner household that somehow needs to continue to be paid while the income of the earners is now divided in half and a second and separate residence is established. Often this is not possible, so both spouses typically end up in a downsized lifestyle home or apartment. This lifestyle change from a family home to an apartment is a big shift for the children, as well as the parents.
One option that was shared and left me in amazement, was the concept of nesting. Nesting is where the divorcing couple keeps the marital home for the sake of the children. Then, they also get an apartment, and instead of the children shuttling between the homes of the parents, the children stay every single night in the family home and the parents swap nights, based on a parenting plan. When this option was presented to me, I really thought they were kidding. I simply asked the attorneys if they really wanted me to give my ex a key to where I was living so she could rummage through my personal stuff when I was staying with the children. This concept sounds great for the kids, but it makes it impossible for the divorced couple to move on and start new lives.
Holidays and Vacations
Parenting plans should also include how to handle all the holidays and vacations. Depending upon your parenting plan you may miss holiday after holiday. Typically, the big holidays are listed in the parenting plan specifically to be alternating every other year, for example. The time and day should be spelled out as well. Christmas is a good example. It’s very easy to share Christmas because one parent can celebrate Christmas Eve and the other parent gets to celebrate Christmas day. But if you don’t specify times, the Christmas Eve parent could celebrate Christmas Eve with the children and not deliver the children back to the other parent until 5:00 PM Christmas night, which would be a cruel trick, but common. In this holiday example, it is better if the children go to the second parent’s house at night on Christmas Eve after the festivities are over so they can wake up on Christmas Day and not have to get up and get dressed just to see what and if Santa had stopped by the second parent’s house. I always thought Santa dropped off the presents at the house where the children were sleeping and that needs to be considered.
Both parents should be civil and agree to have vacations with the children at different times. It is important that both parents always take vacation with their children, even if it’s just a day at the beach.
It is a fact that some people are just bad parents. I know of cases where one parent had fought viciously to get joint custody of the children, and then after a few years never ever spent one day with them. Other parents may be abusive, and in those cases it is better to keep them away from the children, or provide supervised visitation. Supervised visitation is preferred because even a bad parent should see their kids once in a while, as long as it does not endanger the children.
Author David W. Kolakowski is a Principal at Kolaco, Inc. and inventor of ExExpense – an expense management tool to simplify the process of managing shared expenses for a divorced couple. He is not a lawyer, but has participated in a number of mediation sessions for family matters. This article is written from his personal experiences working with friends and associates that have gone through the divorce process and attorneys and mediators that specialize in family matters.