You didn’t enter into your marriage expecting it to fail, but things didn’t work out. Now you’re getting a divorce, and you have children to think about.
Every divorce generally follows the same process, but there are extra considerations and additional steps when children are involved. As you iron out all the details of your divorce, you’ll also need to discuss things like child custody and support, visitation, and parenting agreements.
The changes brought on by separation and divorce can be overwhelming. In addition to the emotional toll, you face administrative and legal proceedings that heap stress and anxiety on top of an already taxing situation. There are seemingly countless details to keep track of, and you have to make a lot of practical and legal decisions.
During a divorce, sometimes it’s easy for parents to forget more than two people are being affected by the split. Children’s needs can get overlooked as parents get caught up in their frustration, worry, and anger — or worse, used as a bargaining tool.
Divorce has a profound effect on children and can be traumatic, but parents can do a lot to reduce conflict and ease the transition. One of the best ways parents can handle divorce with kids is to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship. The fundamental feature of co-parenting relationships is that both parents prioritize what’s best for the children.
Courts strongly encourage divorcing parents to try to come to a reasonable agreement regarding child parenting after divorce. For the divorcing parents to successfully develop a co-parenting relationship, both parents have to remain flexible, prepared to compromise, and commit to a parenting agreement, otherwise known as a parenting plan.
What Is a Parenting Plan and Why Do I Need One?
A parenting plan is a document prepared during divorce or separation to set out a plan for time-sharing, custody, decision-making, and a method to resolve disputes. Other names for parenting plans are parenting agreements, custody agreements, or custody plans.
Many states require submission and approval of a parenting plan before granting a divorce. Tennessee is one of them.
In 2001 the Tennessee Parenting Plan law went into effect to help make divorce easier on children. Under this statute, court approval of a permanent parenting plan is required in Tennessee to receive a divorce if you have children. Once approved, the parenting plan becomes an enforceable court order that both parents are legally bound to follow.
The idea of using a parenting plan attempts to emphasize “parenting responsibilities” and shift away from the concepts of “custody” and “visitation.” “Primary residential parent” replaces “custodial parent,” and “residential time” or “parenting time” takes the place of “visitation.”
The goal is to lessen hostility and encourage parents to cooperate and work together in their children’s best interests. It provides a way for divorcing parents to decide together the best way to meet everyone’s needs within their new family structure and plan for parenting their children after their divorce.
While there are some similarities found in parenting plans, no single plan can apply to all families. Every family is unique, and every parenting plan will be different. The best parenting plan is one that works for both parents. You know your circumstances and children better than anyone else, so if you can do this together, you are both more likely to be satisfied with the results, as opposed to a plan assigned to you by a judge.
Tennessee has a Permanent Parenting Plan form that divorcing parents are required to use as a template for their parenting plan. It is accessible online at the Tennessee State Courts website. The Parenting Plan form is detailed and requires sincere effort by both parents to negotiate an agreement.
Your parenting plan will be one of the most important documents you have. Without a plan, you don’t have an agreement, and there is little you can do to enforce parenting time or any other parenting issue that comes up in the years ahead. Even though the parenting plan form is available online for you to fill out, we recommend you consult a family law attorney who has experience writing parenting plans to help you avoid making mistakes.
What Should a Parenting Plan Include?
Parenting plan requirements vary somewhat from state to state. States differ on what constitutes a typical parenting plan. In Tennessee, divorcing parents must cover every topic in the Tennessee Permanent Parenting Plan Order form, but you won’t want to stop there.
One mistake people often make is writing a parenting plan that is too vague. Divorced parents frequently end up going back to court for post-divorce litigation over omissions, errors, and oversights in their original parenting plan.
A successful plan needs to be thoughtful, thorough, and detailed. Include every scenario and detail that comes to mind. A detailed plan provides clear guidelines and establishes clear expectations, which reduces misunderstandings and conflict between parents.
Parenting plans should include guidelines on the following issues:
- Child support
- Parental responsibilities
- Children’s residential arrangements and schedule
- Parenting time (visitation) schedule, including vacations, holidays, events
- Extended family visitations
- Transportation procedures and arrangements
- Childcare arrangements
- Health insurance
- Medical decisions
- Parent residential move or relocation
- Job loss, or disability
- Parents dating and relationships – rules and restrictions
- Disagreement resolution
- Method to modify the plan
Be sure to cover any additional issues you have or may have in the future. You can count on things changing over time, so you don’t want to draw up a parenting plan that is too rigid. Allow yourself enough flexibility to handle any unforeseen issues, emergencies, scheduling conflicts, resolving disagreements, and outline steps for and reviewing and revising the plan.
A carefully crafted and well-written parenting plan benefits everyone, making life easier and more peaceful for all family members, but creating a good one isn’t easy.
What if We Can’t Agree?
It’s best if parents can reach an agreement outside of court and submit a jointly prepared plan to the court. If you can solve any disagreements about your parenting plan between yourselves without professional help, you have that option. However, creating a parenting plan is a challenging task, even in the best of circumstances.
Differences in parenting strategy can become hard or even impossible to resolve if communication issues or behavior get in the way. In a divorce, emotions run high, and disagreements over a parenting plan can reopen old wounds. Resentment and anxiety make it tough to create a plan together.
If you’re having trouble separating all that emotion from your parenting plan discussions, reach out to one of the resources available to help you find a cooperative approach to your divorce. A counselor, therapist, or family specialist can help minimize the emotional impact of communicating with your co-parent.
You can seek to resolve things outside of court through mediation. Choose a mediator experienced in helping separated parents in conflict. Collaborative lawyers also help people find out-of-court resolutions for their differences. They can help you arrive at a mutually acceptable solution and craft your parenting agreement.
If you and your co-parent simply cannot agree on a suitable parenting plan, on or before 45 days before trial, each parent must submit a plan to the court individually. Divorce and custody proceedings are a lengthy and complicated process, and legal battles are always expensive. If you think you’ll save money by not hiring an attorney, you’ll come out on the short end and still have to pay for things like service of process charges, filing fees, court reporters, and professional evaluations, and that’s just the start. The court will determine what is in the “best interest” of your children, and the court may create a fixed visitation schedule that nobody likes.
When you litigate, no one wins, so it is exceedingly important for you to exhaust all options available while you try to agree on your parenting plan and ensure you have an experienced divorce lawyer to help you navigate the process.
Can You Modify Your Parenting Plan?
If done right, hopefully, you won’t need to. However, if the arrangements you agreed to in your parenting plan don’t work out, it is possible to make changes. Tennessee has set out specific standards parents must adhere to for changing a parenting plan.
To change the parenting schedule, a parent has to demonstrate “a material change in circumstances” that necessitates the modification. The court has to find the change will “serve the best interests” of the children. This requirement is to preserve permanence for the children and prevent parents from making changes for convenience.
Parents can submit a modification agreement (new parenting plan) to the court for approval. If the parents disagree, they may need to go through the mediation process to find a consensus. If the current custody order puts the children at risk, the court may issue a temporary injunction or some other special relief without requiring mediation.
Parental relocation is another situation that requires modifying the plan. To relocate outside Tennessee or more than 50 miles from the other parent, you must give a 60 day written notice via certified mail. If both parents are agreeable, the parents need to work out an alternative parenting schedule to accommodate the move. If not, the other parent can file a petition in opposition. Once filed, no one can move without court approval. If the court finds the move wouldn’t be in the children’s best interests, it may prohibit you from relocating the child. If you leave anyway, the court may award custody to the other parent.
Partner With an Experienced Family Law Attorney
The divorce process is hard. You’ve got so much on your mind, and it’s easy to forget details and make mistakes. With so much at stake, you’ll find it’s best to have an experienced family law attorney on your side.