Do I need to get my parenting plan in writing?

Posted on Nov 15, 2021 by Katie Carter


There are a lot of struggles between coparents when the relationship between them breaks down. And, just like each child has his or her own struggles, each set of coparents struggles with different parts of their changed family dynamics at different points in their journey.

I’ve seen a lot of really, really nasty, tragic, toxic situations – and even sometimes see magical rainbow and unicorn arrangements where the parents work together through the challenges they face as parents, even if they aren’t together anymore.

I believe two things. One is that you have to do the best you can to make yours a magical rainbow and unicorn arrangement. Not for your ex’s sake, but for your own sake (hey, you matter here!) and for the sake, especially, of any children you have stuck in the middle.

The other thing I believe is that it’s not all under your control. Try as you might, you may not be able to convince him to participate meaningfully with you as a coparent, to communicate with you, or to refuse to use the children as pawns.

It’s important not to invalidate people’s experiences, and the truth is that, for many families, it’s a little bit messy. To some extent, we’ve got to give ourselves some grace. We’re new to this. We’re all learning. In fact, that’s what I tell my son ALL THE TIME. It’s not that you’re bad, or stupid, or no good at this – it’s that it’s new, it’s hard, and you’re learning. You’ll make mistakes.

Parenting is hard. The hardest, actually, in my opinion. (And it’s not because I’m bad at it – I’m just learning, too!) I struggle with giving myself grace, and, in some situations, I really agonize over my decisions or repeat in my head what I did that I know, in retrospect, wasn’t the best.

Try as you might, though, you probably can’t change him. It’s worth a shot, of course; it’s worth seeing whether, if you treat him with kindness and give him the information and the choices and the flexibility that you want as a coparent, it’ll make a difference to how he treats you. But it’s not a guarantee that your child’s father will have the same priorities as you. He may not be able to put the child first.

You can’t change him. All you can do is change how you react to him, and keep his behavior in mind as you make choices in your own parenting.

A big question that I get in custody and visitation cases is this one – does my parenting plan need to be in writing?

I have a lot of thoughts on this.

As a general principle, it is a good idea to get your parenting plan in writing. It’s a good idea for your parenting plan to be a specific one, too.

I don’t like agreements that say some kind of version of, “at such time as the parents can agree” or whatever. Do not leave parenting time up to some mythical ‘agreement’ between the two of you. You’re setting yourself up for failure.

A lot of moms like these provisions – or think they do – because they think it gives them more control. You can always say no, right? Well, yes, except that, if you do, it can come back to bite you later on. You say no too many times, and he’s going to get mad. He’s going to think that he was going to get more time. He’s going to talk to a lawyer. He’s probably going to be dramatic. Before long, it’ll turn into a discussion of how you’re unreasonably withholding the children, maybe even committing some form of parental alienation, and he’s going to ask for a change in custody.

The thing is, he’s allowed to ask for a change in custody. That’s built into the system. Custody, visitation, and child support are always modifiable based on a material change in circumstances.

Whether he wins or not, you’ll have to deal with the expense, the time commitment, and the frustration of a custody case. If he wins, you risk losing custody entirely.

A better solution, I think, is to get it all down – in writing, ideally – so that everyone knows what to expect. That way, you each know when you’ll see the child, and no one will be laboring under a false impression of what it’ll be like.

You can set out specifics, too, about when you’ll FaceTime during the other parent’s parenting time, how you’ll handle holiday time and vacations, when/if/how you’ll travel with the child, whether the child can be around your romantic partners (and, if so, under what conditions and after what period of time), and so on. It’s hard to think about these things in the beginning, and can sometimes seem needlessly antagonistic (why raise the painful issue of future partners if you don’t have a future partner today?), but it can smooth the way for the future.

Ideally, you’d craft something so well that you can both breathe a sigh of relief and relax into the parenting schedule, instead of one of you feeling shafted later and going back to court. Not only is going to court expensive and unpredictable, but it’s difficult on the child. Even if you don’t talk to the child about the ongoing litigation (and, let’s be clear, you should NEVER talk to a child about ongoing litigation), they know more than you think. And it’s hurtful for them.
That being said, though, I do think that a parenting plan is a living document, kind of like the Constitution. Maybe a bad example.

In the beginning, the parenting plan should probably be rigidly followed. But, over time, only you and your child’s father will be policing it. It’s okay if you relax, as long as you’re both okay with it. Under some circumstances, depending on how well you get along, it may even be okay to make minor changes.
Unless your child’s father is a waffler, and goes back and forth, you may not need to memorialize each change in writing. As long as you’re both good with it, and you’re able to agree, communicate, and be respectful, it’s probably fine.

It’s when people don’t get along that things need to be written down every step of the way – but, then again, if you’re one of those people, you may be litigating, anyway.

Don’t beat yourself up, though. Everyone’s journey is a little different. It’s not reasonable to look at someone with a rainbows and unicorns style arrangement with their ex and think that it should be that way for you. Maybe things would be easier if it was like that, but you can only try to improve the arrangement that you have, not wish that it was the same as someone else’s.

For more information or to schedule a consultation to discuss crafting the ideal parenting plan, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.