Creating a Custody and Visitation Arrangement: Avoiding big custody mistakes

Drafting custody and visitation agreements is no walk in the park. It’s a difficult thing to talk about and a difficult thing to negotiate. When you’re used to having your children all the time, and being able to spend every holiday, birthday, and special event with them, it’s hard to imagine agreeing to a scenario that only gives you half the Christmases, Thanksgivings, and birthdays from here on out.

Unfortunately, though, this is a reality of divorce. In most cases, it’s impossible to keep things going in the same way as before. After all, you and husband aren’t planning a divorce because things were so awesome when you were together. It’s only realistic to begin to accept that you’ll have to make the transition into co-parenting, which means that you’ll have to start sharing these landmark occasions. That means that you’ll get some of them, but you’ll lose some of them, too.

The best, easiest, healthiest thing to do is to come up with a schedule. Usually, we come up with an agreement that alternates holidays—Christmas and Easter one year, for example, and Thanksgiving and New Year’s the next. There’s a lot of flexibility there, so you can pick and choose what means the most to you, and make concessions about what’s most important to your child’s father. If your family always plans a big Fourth of July bash in the Outer Banks, you may want to ask for that holiday every year, and, in exchange, offer your child’s father extra time to take the kids to visit their grandmother in South Carolina every Easter.

Think about your lives, your jobs, your families, and what’s most important to each of you. Give it some serious thought, and try to come up with a custody and visitation arrangement that takes each parent’s priorities into account, and also focuses on what is best for the children. Do the kids always look forward to your summer trip to the mountains? Try to figure out a way to keep that tradition, even if it means you stay half the week and your child’s father stays the other half.

Making these arrangements is painful for most parents, so they’re tempted to say, “Oh, it’s okay, we don’t need to set up a schedule, we’re all adults and we can work through each holiday when the time comes.” While that approach may be easier to deal with today, you shouldn’t assume that you’ll just be able to “work it out” later on.

This is the biggest mistake many parents make with regard to custody and visitation! You’re taking a big risk, especially if you have primary physical custody. Imagine what happens, six months down the road, when your child’s father asks for a holiday weekend. Imagine that you’ve spent some time planning what you were going to do with the kids with your extra time off. You weren’t thinking about your child’s father wanting time, because you’ve never had to split it before. It’s temping to tell your child’s father, “this just really isn’t a good weekend.”
Imagine what happens when he meets someone new, and he wants to take the kids with him for a day at the beach or Busch Gardens with her. You’ll be tempted to say, “I’m sorry, we already made plans!” The danger here is that your child’s father could take you to court, and argue that you’ve unreasonably withheld visitation. He’ll ask for a change in custody. Will the judge switch your custodial arrangement from primary physical to shared? It’s a possibility.

If you negotiate custody and visitation ahead of time, you both know what to expect. You can both plan special activities for the time that you get with the children, and you’ll know in advance when you need to make your own plans. This lessens the likelihood that you’ll fight more later on, and makes it much more possible to cooperate and co-parent the way you should.

If you deal with custody and visitation now, it’s much less likely that you’ll have to deal with it again later. Do yourself a big favor, and consider these things before they cause more fights, more uncertainty, and more trauma for your children. Draft a specific custody and visitation arrangement. Remember that custody and visitation arrangements are often unique to the specific family involved, and that you should feel free to craft your arrangement in any way that feels easier and more natural to you. Talk to your child’s father about it and try to come up with solutions that reflect your shared concern for your children, and your desire to keep things as constant as possible. You’ll be happy you did.

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