If you are divorcing and have children under 18, it’s a good idea to have a parenting plan. Here’s why…
In a high-conflict divorce, when parents can’t agree on anything, the court may order a parenting plan to be drafted. It is not compulsory when the divorce is amicable and the spouses are able to negotiate arrangements peaceably.
So why is it advisable to have a plan anyway?
Purpose of the parenting plan
The parenting plan defines the roles and powers of each parent or carer. These may be equal (co- or shared parenting) or one parent may have a greater share of the care responsibility.
Post-divorce, one parent may relocate to another city for work or personal reasons, and the parent whose residence is the primary one may also assume decision-making powers, without the need to consult the other (although they should always be informed).
In an emergency, it’s important that the parent on the scene be able to act swiftly and decisively in the best interests of the child. A parenting plan spells out these powers.
The devil is in the detail
At the time of divorce, assuming a mature and good-natured settlement, it is natural to think that your current harmony will be sustainable. And hopefully it will be.
The relationship between divorcing spouses usually improves with time. Usually… but not always. As future partners enter the arena, feelings can change.
Difficult circumstances with a child, such as problems at school or behaviour disorders, can cause conflict between parents previously in accord over childcare. If there is no parenting plan in place, or if it is very vague, disputes may arise in future and the best interests of the child may be compromised.
A detailed parenting plan can anticipate and help you avoid these future challenges.
Your children are old enough at time of divorce to be involved in the decision over care. You allow them to have some discretion regarding the division of time between each parent’s residence.
One day you have an argument with your 13-year-old daughter and she decides to stay at the other parent’s home and not return to you. What do you do? If the language of the parenting plan – or the informal agreement – confirms the child’s right to choose, you could find yourself not seeing your daughter until she decides to come back.
This may be her choice, but it is not in her best interests. A 13-year-old does not have the maturity to make that judgement. You hope your ex-spouse would exercise some influence over her, but what if relations have soured between you? Therefore a detailed parenting plan can cover this eventuality and ensure there is a fall-back plan.
Other important details
A parenting time schedule is the basis for the plan, to avoid scenarios such as the example above. Other important details include a specific holiday schedule with dates and times.
Christmas can be particularly emotive. A generic agreement to take Christmas in turn may not be sufficient if, 10 years down the line when both parents have new families, one needs to make an alternative arrangement one year. The plan needs to spell out the circumstances when the Christmas plan can be altered, and when it can’t be.
You might also want to think about seemingly minor day-to-day considerations such as transport. Many couples have come to blows over the school run!
Another source of conflict – or at least inconvenience – is what to do when a child is sick or there are in-service days at school. If you are lucky enough to have live-in childcare or accommodating relatives, this might not be an issue. But for many working parents a child’s illness causes genuine problems at work.
Many companies allocate a certain number of ‘family leave’ days per year… but not all. Does the parent with whom the child is staying on the morning she is sick take the day off? Or do you agree to negotiate on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration your respective work demands? It really helps to figure this out in advance and include it in the parenting plan.
And what about accidents? Hopefully these won’t happen, but it’s important to be prepared. When your child is sick or hurt is not the time to be making decisions about who should do what. Think through unpleasant scenarios calmly when they are only hypothetical so you know what to do when it matters.
Grandparents have rights too
Time with grandparents should also be included. We hear over and over again from grandparents who have been alienated from their grandchildren because the parents have drifted apart after divorce and the parent with custody wants nothing to do with the family of the other. Children derive huge benefit from their relationships with grandparents and this should be protected via the parenting plan.
A parenting plan is not for life
Parenting plans are designed to be reviewed and revised. The level of detail included will influence the frequency of review, and also the formality of that review. On the one hand, the more detail there is, the more often you will need to review the plan, as children grow, you re-marry and/or have more children, one parent relocates, etc. If the parenting plan includes information such as school holiday arrangements, this may need to be revised when the child changes schools, for example.
On the other hand, if there is too little detail, and a dispute arises, you may wind up going to court to have the parenting plan adjusted. It’s a good idea to incorporate a review date or interval in the parenting plan itself. If you prefer not to set a formal review date, you can still reflect your intention in writing to review the plan as needed.
How much does a parenting plan cost?
You can draw up a parenting plan on your own. There are numerous templates available online. However, we don’t recommend it.
As family law attorneys you might expect us to say that. But here’s why we genuinely believe the guidance of an expert divorce lawyer is critical:
Online forms are usually vague and generic. That’s the nature of them. It is impossible for a template designed to accommodate a diverse range of people and situations to include everything you need in your parenting plan.
You, your co-parent and your child/ren are unique. Online templates miss out important details. Only an experienced attorney will know what details to include to ensure your parenting plan runs smoothly until your child is 18. The cost will vary depending on the complexity of your circumstance but is in the range of R5 000 – R15 000.
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