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Back in the old days (before April, 2001), divorcing parents essentially had two options with respect to their minor children. The Court would award one parent sole legal and physical custody of the kids -- which meant that parent made all the significant decisions regarding them. The other parent was awarded the right to visit the children -- but only at specified times set by statute. Alternatively, the Court would order the parents to share joint legal custody of the kids. In that event, one parent was still awarded sole physical custody and the other was still relegated to statutory visitation. And, while there was some vague notion that joint legal custody somehow increased the non custodial parent’s rights; in practice, the children’s physical custodian always held sway.

Enter the parenting plan -- the Legislature’s attempt to eliminate the joint legal custody guesswork and to ensure that divorcing parents now fully understand the ramifications of joint custody and have the framework necessary to implement it. Parents who wish to share joint custody of their kids now have to define for the Court and each other how exactly they intend to co-parent their children.

The required parenting plan must provide for the child’s physical care and emotional stability, and his or her changing needs as the child grows and matures, designate the authority and responsibilities of each parent with respect to such issues as the child’s residence, education, health care and religious upbringing, minimize the child’s exposure to conflict between the parents, encourage resolution of parental conflicts outside the judicial system and protect the best interests of the child. What’s not to like?

Mediation is the ideal forum for developing a parenting plan that will address the particular needs of the divorcing parents and their children. With the assistance of a trained mediator, the parties can control their own destiny and act in the best interests of their children -- instead of trying to fit into the legal paradigm imposed by the Court. Instead of one parent edicts, there can be cooperative decision making. Instead of visitation there can be timesharing. And, because the parties are required to include a dispute resolution process in the plan, mediation can provide continuity between the initial formulation of the parenting plan and the subsequent problems of implementation. Divorcing parents must develop a plan that addresses the following issues:

1. Child’s residence

2. Parenting time

3. Transporting the children between homes

a. Facilitating child’s emotional transfer

b. Exchange of clothing and belongings

4. Decision making process

a. Designating what issues require joint decisions

b. The process if unable to reach agreement

i. Third parties

ii. Counseling

iii. Mediation

iv. Arbitration

5. Exchanges of Information between parents

a. Communicating with each other regarding the children

b. Communicating about special events, homework and health

6. Financial obligations

a. Child support

b. Extra-curricular activities

7. Medical insurance and expenses

a. Which parent maintains insurance

b. Uninsured medical expenses

c. Elective medical expenses

8. Child care

a. Shared costs

b. Selection of care provider

c. Surrogate care

9. Changing needs of the children

a. Education

b. Desire to change time-sharing arrangements

c. Religious training and affiliation

d. Travel out of state/out of country with and without parents

e. Obtaining driver’s license, insurance and driving or owning a car

f. Military service

g. Underage marriage

h. Alcohol or drug use

i. Allowance

j. Tattoos, body piercing

k. Sports

l. Girl/boy friends

10. Differences in parenting styles

11. Consistency in raising children

a. Ground rules in each house

b. Discipline

c. Curfews

12. Disparaging remarks

13. Extended family relationships

14. New partners

a. Cohabitation

b. Step-parent rights and responsibilities

15. Maintaining/encouraging contact between parents

16. Relocating

a. Notice

b. Renegotiation of time-sharing and the parenting plan

17. Commitment to co-parenting

Chances are, if the parties can adequately address these issues in a cooperative environment, they will achieve a parenting plan that eases the pain that inevitably occurs with children of divorces, while at the same time fulfilling the law requirements

Credit for above:  Gayanne K Schmid, a private practice family law attorney practicing in Utah and California.

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