What is a parenting plan?

Posted on Jan 8, 2020 by Katie Carter

In terms of vocabulary, there are all sorts of things that we say when it comes to custody and visitation that may seem new to you. I’ve written extensively on legal and physical custody, the different types (primary, shared, and split), coparenting, parenting education seminars, and many other topics related to custody and visitation that I’ve gotten questions on throughout the years.

In many cases, I find that clients have a pretty good idea what these things mean, but they don’t necessarily understand the full extent of these terms. It’s one thing to understand a general concept, and another to have a truly deep and nuanced understanding. Custody and visitation are kind of complicated – not in the concepts, of course, but in how rules are applied, how standards are changing and evolving, and what judges, guardians ad litem, and attorneys understand about the process that may be foreign to you.

A parenting plan is one of those things. On its face, you probably have an idea what that means. But there are lots of specifics when it comes to dealing with custody and visitation, and life under a parenting plan, with which you may be less familiar.
What is a parenting plan?

A parenting plan is just that – a plan that you and your child’s father follow – that specifies what parenting time you each have with the child or children in question.

Parenting time, similarly, is your custodial time. It’s a sort of PC way of talking about things that doesn’t infer a prejudice against the parent who has less parenting time.

What’s included in a parenting plan?

A parenting plan isn’t JUST who has the kids when, though that’s a big part of it. A parenting plan refers to ALL of the specifics about how you plan to share responsibility for the children.


Your parenting time should be gone over in some detail, including, but not limited to all relevant holidays (Halloween, for example, as well as Yom Kippur, if you’re Jewish, or whatever religious tradition you follow or non-religious occasions that are important to you) AND breaks from school (like Christmas, so, even if you’re not Christian, you should give some thought to this), as well as vacation time that you want to spend with the children.

Holidays are important! It’s important, too, to give some thought to what holidays are most important to you, and what traditions and other traditions are involved with each. Our standard custody and visitation agreement alternates legal holidays – Memorial Day, Labor Day, and 4th of July. You should also give some thought to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter – and anything else that is important to your religious or cultural tradition.

Do you want to alternate? Do you want to split larger blocks of time, especially in the breaks from school, so that you have time to travel?

Don’t forget to consider Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and the children’s birthdays.


Do you want the flexibility to travel with the children? How will you handle which dates you select, or how long you’ll have at a single stretch? Do you need a week? Or longer – if you visit family somewhere else?

How will you share contact information, itineraries, and other information with your child’s other parent?

How flexible is your schedule?

Your parenting plan can be anything you want. Whether you alternate weekends, week on/week off, or 3-4-4-3, or something else, it’s entirely up to you.

If your child’s father (or you!) work in a job with an inconsistent schedule, you’ll want to figure out ways to work around it, and how to offer makeup time (or not) in the event one parent or the other can’t exercise his or her visitation.

Right of first refusal

We also often include a right of first refusal. That’s what applies when, if the parent in charge can’t watch the child – or plans to engage a babysitter – for a period of time (usually 4, 6, or 8 hours, depending on your level of comfort or preference), the children are offered to the other parent first, before any other care is organized.

What about girlfriends and boyfriends?

When he starts seeing someone new – or you do – how do you want that to go down? No unrelated overnight guests? No boyfriends or girlfriends left with the children in their sole care? Do you want to meet her before the children do?

Remember that whatever you specify will be mutual. What kind of level of scrutiny do you want to give him over your life later? It’s a fine line, so worth thinking about.

Other considerations in a parenting plan

It should also include the specifics of how you plan to parent your children as well, during your time with and without the children.

Do you want to specify a certain time of day, when the children are in the care of the other parent, to touch base via FaceTime or Skype?

How will you handle doctor’s appointments, sports and other extracurricular activities, communication from school, etc? Do you want a provision that puts a duty on both parents to inform the other parent, or do you want to just ensure that the other parent has access to the information and put the responsibility on them?

How do you plan to communicate about the children? Text? Email? It’s good to have a written record, in case there’s any disputes later. We also recommend Our Family Wizard, especially in super contested cases. That way, you can share calendars and other information, as well as chat about custody and visitation exchanges. If you want to use it, you may also want to specify how it will be paid for – whether split 50/50, or alternated year over year.

Is there a drug or alcohol problem? Do you want to include a provision that no drugs or alcohol are to be consumed during parenting time – or some period of time before? Remember – again – this won’t be palatable to your child’s other parent unless the restriction is mutual (and therefore less prejudicial), so it could impede your behaviors as well. If you’re one to indulge in a glass of wine on Friday night (as so many of us are), that may be uncomfortably or annoyingly restrictive. Still, if his problem is serious enough that you’re worrying, it may be worth it.

There are certainly more things you could include as well, but my point is that a parenting plan is more than just who gets little Jimmy on Wednesdays. It’s a complex, comprehensive document designed to help make sure that things move as smoothly as possible.

It may seem like the devil is in the details, so you’ll be tempted to just ignore them – but I don’t think that’s ever wise, where custody and visitation are concerned. The more you iron out these things before hand, and set and manage expectations, the greater chance of success you’ll have for your coparenting relationship. Not only that, but you’ll be less likely to find yourself in court – spending tens of thousands of dollars, and wrecking your relationship with your child’s other parent.

It’s worth it to be considered and careful. For more information, or to get help drafting your parenting plan, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.