Many parents consider custody and parenting time decisions the most emotionally charged part of a divorce or separation. That’s completely understandable—children change and grow up incredibly fast. No parent wants to feel like they’ve missed time or opportunities with them.
But while it can be stressful to feel like you’re bartering with your co-parent to get time with your children, it’s also possible to arrive at a parenting time plan that works for your family—without unnecessary litigation or ongoing conflict.
A parenting plan is an important long-term resource for navigating decision-making, child-rearing, and co-parenting. When done collaboratively and creatively, your parenting time plan can alleviate a significant amount of frustration for you and your family as you move forward.
What is a parenting time plan?
“Parenting time” and “visitation” both refer to the same thing: the time that parents spend with their children. Some courts prefer to use the term “parenting time” over “visitation” because no matter whose home is the child’s primary residence, both parents’ relationships with their child are equally important.
While the courts have the power to determine how a parenting time plan will be executed, there are less stressful ways to navigate parenting time. Using mediation or other alternative dispute resolution methods, parents can craft parenting plans which work for their particular needs—these agreements are legally binding, just like those decided through the courts.
When families avoid litigating parenting time, they often find that parenting time schedules can be highly customizable. You can be as specific as you need for your family’s needs, schedules, preferences, and more, especially when you work with a trusted legal counsel and can utilize approaches like mediation to create a collaborative and positive approach.
If your separation from your partner is settled in court, then the courts will determine child custody and parenting time based on the child’s best interest, whether you and your co-parent were married or not.
In New Jersey, physical and legal custody (including decision-making about issues related to the children’s health, welfare, religious observance, and education) are included under the umbrella term “child custody.” The courts also consider, among other things, the parent’s ability to agree and cooperate, a parent’s relationship with the child, home living conditions, and travel time between homes.
What should be included in your custody and parenting time plan?
A custody and parenting time plan includes two categories of decisions: the basic day-to-day parenting time agreement and plans for all of the things (big and small) that may come up in the future.
At the minimum, a parenting time plan should include decisions with legal and financial ramifications, such as physical custody and legal custody (who has the authority to make major decisions).
Once a custody parenting time arrangement has been finalized, co-parents need to draft a custody and parenting agreement, which outlines schedules, guidelines, and agreed-upon boundaries and expectations for raising the child. It’s essential to create a detailed plan that accounts for possible deviations, potential changes to the family, and scheduling options so that when something arises, parents can avoid potential conflict by following the parenting plan that they both agreed to.
The most effective parenting time agreements consider the common scenarios which can arise after a divorce—such as a new significant other, employment changes, potential moves, or even a change in how the family celebrates holidays. It’s also important that the final document speaks to the behaviors of the family—is a more flexible arrangement feasible, or do you and your co-parent need itemized specifics (like pick-up times and drop-off times for every holiday) to keep things running smoothly?
After all, the future is unpredictable, and even if a divorce is relatively amicable, tensions can arise later on if there’s a discrepancy within a parenting plan.
What is a typical parenting schedule?
When it comes to parenting schedules, don’t compare notes with friends, family members, or the internet—each family is different and there truly is no “typical” parenting schedule. It’s fine to take inspiration from others, but your primary concern should be this: what does your family need and how do you best operate?
Keep the following considerations (which are some of many) in mind:
- You and your co-parent’s work schedules or obligations
- Your children’s after-school interests or weekend commitments
- Travel time between homes
- Holidays and vacations and how these affect your immediate and extended family
- What you’ll do if an unexpected problem arises
- Flexibility around missed parenting time, such as if one parent knows in advance that they have a scheduling conflict on a particular weekend
For instance, one parent may want a more extended vacation with their child over the summer break, while another may prioritize a particular holiday. The demands of a parent’s job may make a rigid schedule problematic or necessary, depending on your circumstances.
It’s also important to remember that children grow, and their interests and participation in sports or other extracurricular activities may change how they spend their time. A parenting plan is intended to benefit the child and the parents, so these possibilities should be considered.
While developing a parenting time plan can be overwhelming, resources are available to help you navigate the process and arrive at the right solution for your family. A family law attorney can help demystify and de-stress the process by providing clarity and institutional experience to guide parents through these significant decisions. Whether your family decides to pursue mediation over litigation, it’s still recommended to consult with an experienced family law attorney to advocate for your family’s best interests.
How to resolve disputes in your parenting time plan
Even if you craft a detailed parenting plan that accounts for various circumstances, as we’ve said (and you’ve likely experienced), the future is unpredictable. You may need to update your parenting time plan due to a move or drastic change in family circumstances—or any other reasons.
A custody agreement can typically be changed if both co-parents agree on the modification. The parent seeking the change should work with their child custody modification attorney to draft a consent order or consent agreement, a legal document that details exactly what the change will be and how it will work.
If the co-parent signs the consent order or agreement, then they’ve legally agreed to alter their child custody agreement. In this situation, the parent seeking the modification doesn’t have to prove anything has changed or file a motion with the court.
If parents cannot arrive at a resolution together, one party may decide to file a motion with the court for a post-divorce modification to change the parenting plan.
Depending on the court system, in the case of a post-divorce modification, families may go through mediation. If mediation is unsuccessful, the modification request would go before the court for a final decision.
In addition to changed circumstances, the court will weigh the child’s various needs, their relationship with both parents, the co-parents’ relationship, and any other factors relevant to the child’s best interests.
No matter the avenue you pursue regarding parenting time plans or modifications, whether it’s mediation or litigation, the health and wellbeing of the child should always be the most important factor for any decision.
Work with an Experienced New Jersey Child Custody Attorney
At Jacobs Berger, LLC, our family law attorneys have years of experience helping parents navigate parenting time. We aim to de-stress the process by taking a creative, collaborative approach to any questions or issues you might encounter.
To get started today, contact us to schedule a strategic planning session.