Virginia Parenting Plans and Parenting Time

Posted on Jun 19, 2023 by Katie Carter

Parenting Plans and Parenting Time

These days, its probably safe to say that shared custody is more the norm than primary physical custody, except in cases where the parties agree otherwise.  There is no explicit, legal presumption for shared custody in Virginia, though; in fact, the law only provides that the judge should consider “all” forms of custody (primary, shared, and split) equally.

To me, that means that primary physical custody is on equal footing with shared physical custody.  Split physical custody describes a situation where there’d be a different parenting plan (more on this in a minute) for each child.  That’s usually not something that is awarded willy nilly; it’s usually as a result of a very specific set of circumstances and after a determination is made, either by the parents or by the judge, that this arrangement is in the best interests of the children involved.

My experience?  Well, I would hesitate to speak in sweeping generalities, but I see more and more shared custody all the time.  Should it be the new norm?  Well, in my opinion, absolutely not – but it seems like that’s sort of the way things are headed.

Hey, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not anti-dad just because I’m pro mom.  A good dad is great.  A bad dad… well, you know.  No dad at all is better than a bad dad!  I just don’t think that custody and visitation is a ‘one size fits all’ situation where you can make sweeping generalizations like that shared custody is in ALL kids’ best interests.  It’s not!  In fact, I’ve seen some cases where its pretty terrible.

The current system is flawed, too.  I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.  Because custody and visitation is determined based on the ‘best interests of the child’ and Guardians ad litem and judges – who are not specialists in child welfare by any stretch of the imagination – wield the ultimate decision making power, there are wildly inconsistent and sometimes dramatically skewed results.

You add into it the fact that dad – who is an abuser, or a narcissist, or otherwise struggling with mental illness – is also quite charming and mom is reeling under the very real stress of a wildly volatile time in her life, and its sort of a recipe for disaster.

I can’t fix the world we live in, though.  All I can do is prepare you – like I’d try to prepare any of my clients – for what’s out there.  A lot of that comes down to nailing your presentation – both of yourself and of your specific case – when it comes time to go to court.

If your husband is a narcissist or an abuser or savvy in any way at all, he’ll be ready to be charming.  So, I am sorry to say, you should probably be preparing for the same.  I know, I know – you’re under a ton of stress.  But judges are human, and first impressions mean a lot.

A lot of the vibe you’re serving will come down to the language that you use.  Since we’ve moved to a more egalitarian view of custody and visitation arrangements in Virginia, the language we use has evolved as well.  I was in court just the other dad and the judge announced sternly to both parents that he didn’t believe in visitation, because parents don’t VISIT their children, they parent them.

While its true – you know, in cases where you have two good parents – it also says a LOT about general judicial mindset.  Visitation is still a legal word we use, but I think you’d be better off not to use it yourself.  You should use the more egalitarian language we’ve developed in recent years, because it’ll show the court that you understand modern parenting.

Parenting Plan

A parenting plan is the specific schedule you follow in terms of the time that each parent has with your children.  It can be something that you reach by agreement between the parties, or it can be an order that the judge enters.

A custody agreement or order is the same thing, and it’s fine language, but parenting plan is a little more current.  A parenting plan describes how each parent’s parenting time is divided.

Parenting Time

Though we still file petitions for custody and visitation, visitation is probably not a word you should let a judge catch you using.  Ideally, you’ll use the phrase parenting time.  Both parents have parenting time, even the primary custodial parent (if you have one).  Whether you have fully equal 50/50 custody, or whether your child’s father is a deadbeat, the time that each parent is allocated is referred to as parenting time.

In a best case scenario, we’d have a super, super detailed parenting plan.  Everything related to the children should be carefully spelled out so that both parents go into their parenting plan knowing exactly how much parenting time to expect and when.

A lot of parents say things like, “Oh, we’ll just figure it out,” but I find that’s a recipe for disaster.  If you haven’t taken a look at the best interests of the child factors, you should do so – and pay particular attention to factor #6.  The big concern that I have when people tell me they’ll just work it out is that they’ll enter into their parenting plan together without sharing the same understanding of what’s going to happen.  Maybe mom things that just ‘figuring’ it out means that dad will take a backseat.  Maybe dad thinks that this will look more like 50/50 custody.  In any case, when the parties expectations are not met, they’ll be angry – and dad might file a petition to modify custody and visitation because she’s unreasonably denying access to the children.  It’s a recipe for disaster, and one that not only means that the parties are more likely to find themselves repeatedly in court, but also could potentially warrant a change in custody.

Save yourself the trouble.  Be explicit, even if its hard.  Go into your parenting plan sharing the same expectations.  Not only will it prevent you from finding out the hard way that the two of you didn’t share the same opinions about how this’ll all work out, but it’ll keep you out of court, which will help you coparent together more effectively as time goes on.

They’re our kids

Oh, and another thing?  It’s a good idea to refer to your children as “ours,” especially when you’re in court.  I know – in general conversation, I say “my” kids, too.  But its better, if you can, to reprogram your brain to say “ours” whenever you reference your children.   If you don’t do it across the board, you’ll find it easy to slip up in court or at another important time.

Judges want to see that you view them as your children together.  Anything else would suggest that you view dad’s role as lesser, and that’s not in keeping with the modern views of parenting we’re seeing from the court these days.

It’s not easy.  Not because you don’t view the kids as “ours” or because you are opposed to a parenting plan, but because the court puts so much emphasis on those word choices – and, probably unfairly, is keen to label a mom who fails to use these words as one who doesn’t believe that dads are as important as moms in terms of custody and visitation.

It’s about making a good first impression.  Walking the walk also means talking the talk, and you’re going to want to make sure you adopt the preferred lingo – no matter what your personal beliefs.

For more information, to request a copy of our custody book for Virginia moms, or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.