Family Law attorneys spend a good portion of their time drafting agreements for the parenting of minor children. As we come to the end of the calendar year, here are a few quick tips for parenting plans:
Often attorneys prepare documents in a reactive way instead of a proactive way. We are trying to keep all the balls in the air and hit all the deadlines. Think in advance about upcoming mediations, trials, and filing deadlines. Try to build in as much time as possible for your client to review what you have prepared in advance, mentally process the document, and give ideas and suggestions for revisions. This helps to eliminate the stress on the client and, at the mediation or settlement conference, changes can be processed by the client faster and terms are more easily negotiated as your client already has a firm grasp of the plan as a whole.
Think about the plan as a long-term document and try to anticipate issues that may come up down the line as the children age. Some examples: car insurance expense, cell phone expense, college tuition, college savings plan contributions, etc. Do not limit yourself to thinking only about the next few years. Try to anticipate future issues that will arise so you can proactively address those without the parties going back to court.
Watch Your Revisions
Attorneys make a large number of edits to parenting plans as the parties negotiate. Provisions are added, eliminated, and revised. Read through your final plan before signatures one last time to make sure references to other paragraphs throughout the plan still match in numbering. In other words, if you reference paragraph 6(B) about summer in another part of the plan, be sure that paragraph 6(B) actually does still reference summer parenting time and insertions of other provisions did not change it to paragraph 8(B). Also, make sure referenced exhibits are attached to the final version of the plan. This seems a silly and obvious point, but the number of times this occurs is surprising.
Do the parties want to address provisions for international travel and obtaining passports in the future? Ask your client to confirm and be sure they have thought that need through. Who maintains the passports? If the children already have passports, does a parent want restrictions on international travel in the future to specific countries or do both parties have to consent to any international travel prior to departure? Be sure your client has considered these issues.
Does a parent wish to have the children for events that do not fall on his/her regular parenting rotation (e.g. weddings, funerals, family reunions). Does that require the consent of the other parent? Is there make-up time provided if regular parenting time is missed for special event parenting time and how is that determined if there is a disagreement? Can this occur during a parent’s holiday or vacation time or is that excluded as protected time not subject to special events? Consider all the options and speak to your client about his/her needs.
Realize your client has probably not put a lot of thought into this issue in the initial stages of the case. The client is not likely thinking about 3-5 years down the line and what the client’s needs may be as life changes. Often, I provide a client with holiday and break schedules for several different counties so they can look at options and decide what works best for their family. Further, if you have clients that do not follow holidays covered by a court’s model parenting schedule, educate yourself on what those holidays are for different cultures and beliefs. Develop a template for these other holidays and festivals so you can discuss this in an educated way with your client.
If you decide to create a formula for division of a school break or holiday in your plan that you have not utilized in the past, test it first. Look at the school calendar for different academic years and apply your formula as drafted in the plan. Be sure the formula works the way the parties intend and it is not going to lead to confusion when applied.
This is an increasing issue in today’s world for parents. Think about whether provisions need to go into your parenting plans to address concerns about technology. Should both parents be informed of social media accounts utilized by the children? Should both parents have access to the usernames and passwords for the children’s social media and e-mail accounts? Is there a concern about devices with GPS capabilities or apps with GPS capabilities allowing tracking during the other parent’s time? Is that acceptable or does that need to be discussed?
Make It Manageable
There is a fine line between being thorough and being too cumbersome. The plan, although detailed, also has to be workable for the average parent. The client has to be able to live life with the children in reasonable way without being so tied to the requirements of the parenting plan that it makes it impossible to succeed. Try to be cognizant of this when drafting. Look at required deadlines in the plan and try to make them consistent (e.g. always a 14 day notification versus 14 days in one section and 30 days in another section). Consider which provisions of the plan need a deadline to be effective and reduce conflict versus those that may not. You do not want to set the client up to fail, so be sure expectations and deadlines are reasonable, understandable, and as consistent as possible.