By Howard Iken
If you have been recently involved in a custody proceeding you most likely are familiar with Parenting Plans. A Parenting Plan is supposed to be a “living, breathing” document that provides a framework for raising children in a separated household. It usually contains a large variety of provisions for your children including school designations, schedules, holiday planning, religious designations, and medical guidelines. The main purpose of a Parenting Plan is to show the two of you can mutually work together for the benefit of your children.
But there is a complex ingredient that goes into a Parenting Plan. That complex ingredient is the legal process. Even though a Parenting Plan is a tool used to benefit children, it is also a court order. A court order is essentially “law” and carries serious consequences when there are disagreements. Because of that fact, it is essential you try to avoid disputes. Unlike other understandings between parents, a dispute over a Parenting Plan can consume thousands of dollars, and years of your life.
You can avoid Parenting Plan litigation by following this common sense list:
Here is a common scenario. Sunday night rolls around and one parent must drop the kids off to the other parent by 6 p.m. But in the last year the kids enrolled in an activity that affects the schedule. The end effect is that the kids are dropped off a 6:30 pm on a regular basis.
There are some parents that will raise a furious argument in both directions over the slight shift in time. Some parents react by consulting custody attorneys and then charging back into court for an enforcement hearing. Faced with this type of argument, most judges would express obvious annoyance. The most common end result would be a lecture from the judge that everyone must be flexible when it comes to parenting. That joint price tag for that lecture will be in excess of $3000. The lesson: kids are not objects or numbers. You must be slightly flexible about most details in the Parenting Plan.
Communication and open discussion about your children will solve most problems. But during the average divorce, most parents develop a natural intolerance for speaking to or looking at the other parent. Communication breaks down and becomes almost completely impossible. The children always lose out in this situation.
It was easier to communicate about the children when you lived as a couple. It will be more difficult now that you live apart. But you cannot co-parent without communicating. And a complete lack of communication is a direct violation of the Parenting Plan. Most plans incorporate joint parental responsibility. That means the two of you are ordered by the court to communicate about your children. There are some communication tools available to facilitate parental communication.
Keep Your Children Out Of Disputes
If there were a perfectly reliable way to blow up the Parenting Plan, and end up back in court, it would be about involving the children in adult disputes. Some Parenting Plans specifically forbid parents from immersing children in adult disputes. Even if they do not mention that, it is an “implied” part of the Plan. In any case, when you pull the kids into your dispute, everyone gets angry and everyone starts calling attorneys. The next step will land you back in court for violation of the Parenting Plan.
Do not discuss your Parenting Plan with the children. Never cast the other parent in a bad light. Both of you love your children and everything you say and do must reflect that. There is an old saying that goes something like: “If you cannot say something nice, don’t say anything at all. “ That saying is especially true in a Parenting Plan dispute.
Consult Your Ex On Big Commitments
This has several different meanings. The first, most common meaning is to avoid committing the other parent to optional medical procedures, private school, or expensive activities. If it is a joint expense then you must run it by the other parent before signing or promising to pay. A lot of closed cases are reopened based on this one point.
The other meaning: Don’t start the kids in an all-encompassing activity without first discussing it with the other parent. One good example is cheerleading competition. That is an activity that typically requires five practice sessions per week. Before getting the kids excited about beginning a new activity, be sure to discuss the requirements with the other parent. Not only does the Parenting Plan require it, but common sense says a mutual buy-in will make things smoother.
This may seem like a strange comment from a divorce and custody attorney. But many lawyers have their own opinions and agenda. It is relatively easy to “whip up” a client and make them want to charge back into court. Good family law attorneys all agree that courts are a terrible place to solve family disputes. And each time you charge into court it is more likely both parents will want to do it again. Finally, the obvious point; why not spend the potential legal fees on something for your child?
The five steps are deceptively simple, but represent the most frequent points of friction between parents. With a little bit of consideration, a pinch of communication, and a twist of common sense you can both be great parents. Becoming good parents also carries a large bonus – the ability to avoid unnecessary Parenting Plan litigation now and in the future.
Howard Iken is an Orlando divorce attorney with offices throughout Florida. Mr. Iken and his staff of attorneys believe in reducing conflict in all situations involving children. Howard Iken also is a Family Law Mediator certified by the Florida Supreme Court.