Whenever there is a child involved with a couple’s break-up, major decisions on custody need to be made in that child’s best interests. A parenting plan and schedule provides a defined, predictable custody arrangement that delineates the terms of access that both parents must abide by, and upon which the child learns to depend. The well-devised plan is made a part of the child custody orders that render it fully enforceable, so the parties are not reliant on each other’s good will to strengthen and maintain a solid parent-child relationship.
When a custody proceeding is pending and the court is asked to order joint custody, or shared parenting, three requirements must be met:
- Both parents agree to joint custody.
- Joint custody is in the child’s best interests.
- A written parenting plan is submitted to the court.
Parents need to understand that parenting plans are not intended to elevate one parent’s importance above the other. With Arizona’s co-parenting model, when the parties seek joint custody the law requires submission of a written parenting plan to the court. Keep in mind, though, that joint legal custody does not guarantee equal parenting time.
Here is an excerpt from A.R.S. § 25-403.02 listing the minimum requirements for every parenting plan:
“A. Before an award is made granting joint custody, the parents shall submit a proposed parenting plan that includes at least the following:
- Each parent’s rights and responsibilities for the personal care of the child and for decisions in areas such as education, health care and religious training.
- A schedule of the physical residence of the child, including holidays and school vacations.
- A procedure by which proposed changes, disputes and alleged breaches may be mediated or resolved, which may include the use of conciliation services or private counseling.
- A procedure for periodic review of the plan’s terms by the parents.
- A statement that the parties understand that joint custody does not necessarily mean equal parenting time.”
If the parents are unable to agree on any particular element of a plan, then the court will step in and make the parenting decision for them. Furthermore, the judge may also look at other factors that could improve the child’s “emotional and physical health.” Parents are well-served by analyzing every possible circumstance that could reasonably occur in a child’s life, and then planning how they propose dealing with each of those circumstances. By doing so, they will substantially lessen the likelihood of the judge making parenting decisions for them.
Choosing Words Carefully
The parties may agree to associate specific definitions to words written into the parenting plan. For example, the couple may decide that “a day” shall mean “24-hours” and not less. Although the parents may choose their own words in describing their agreements, they should choose those words very carefully. The agreed upon terms and their respective definitions would be written into, and become a part of, the parenting plan — those terms are very important to interpretation and implementation.
Tailoring to the Child’s Needs
To pass the court’s muster, a parenting plan needs to be child specific. The age of the child is, of course, very important when creating an access schedule. Include a thoughtful daycare plan, one that answers the inevitable question of how the child will be cared for while the parent is unavailable or at work. Each parent must be prepared to demonstrate how he or she will accomplish the following:
- Properly care for the child while away at work.
- Make adjustments to the work schedule as needed.
- Be flexible with needed care for the child.
- Transport the child to activities and events.
- Be as involved in the child’s life as the parent claims he or she wants to be.
Creating a parenting plan requires a substantial investment of your time, concentration, emotional energy, and answers to a myriad of “what if” questions. But it must be done. The best advice we have is that you don’t delay, that you start from the beginning and consider each child’s needs independently, and be as thorough as you can be.