Mediating a Parenting Plan that Works

by William H. Donahue, Jr., Esq., APM

A good parenting plan sets down who will make what decisions for your children, how much time they will spend with each parent, and how their financial needs will be met. As a mediator, I help my clients create a parenting plan that works. Lawyers, mediators and judges know that too many people have parenting plans that don't. We know it because so many people end up back in court after divorce to enforce or change the terms of a parenting plan. This kind of after-divorce litigation is likely to involve one or more of the following issues:

  • Conflicts involving parental authority
  • Interference with visitation
  • Children's refusal to comply with parenting plans (won't go for visitation)
  • The parent who doesn't take children for scheduled visitation
  • Failure to pay child support

The more I can help my clients focus on their children's lives, personalities, needs, and relationships with each parent, the more workable their parenting plans are likely to be. Before my clients start negotiating a parenting plan, I always raise the following questions:

  • What kind of parent do you want to be?
  • What kind of parent do you want your spouse to be?
  • What kind of relationship do you want to have with your children?
  • What kind of relationship do you want your children to have with your spouse?
  • What arrangements can you put in your parenting plan that will best enable you to meet your parenting goals?

These questions help my clients focus on values and relationships. The exact details of a parenting plan are not as important as the relationships family members maintain. After they've talked about these issues, most people view the job of developing a parenting plan differently. They see their children as people with needs and lives rather than as property or entitlements. The next step is to resolve the specifics of the parenting plan. I break this step into two areas: decision-making authority and living arrangements.

Decision making authority goes to the issue of legal custody, but I try to avoid the terms custody and visitation. Instead, I talk to my clients about the decisions parents have to make for their children. We talk about how decisions were made in the past and how they should be made in the future. We also talk about things like cooperation and the parents' ability to share decision-making. We discuss philosophical differences as they relate to their children.

The goal is to sort out how compatible their parenting styles and beliefs are. The more incompatible they are, the more detailed the parenting plan should be. When the parenting plan goes into effect, each parent should have a certain comfort level with the other's parenting, and each should respect the parenting and decision-making of the other. If the parenting plan doesn't provide this comfort level, it probably isn't going to work.

The goal in working out the children?s schedules is to encourage a strong relationship between the children and each parent. It is important that both parents be involved in the day-to-day activities of their children's lives. A good way to ensure this is to make a detailed list of the children's activities and a detailed list of the parents' activities. Comparing these lists usually helps them devise parenting schedules that meet everyone's needs.

A good parenting plan should include provisions for vacations, holidays, family events, and birthdays. It should also include provisions for how changes in scheduling will be handled, the method of pick-up or drop off, access to information; and how and when the parenting plan will be renegotiated. As children get older, their lives and needs change substantially.