If you have children and are divorcing, then a parenting plan becomes a very important document. This plan, also called a custody and visitation agreement, is a written agreement describing how the parents will work together to care for their children. It generally covers two very important areas. These are a schedule for when the children will be with each parent, and how they will make decisions about the health, education, and welfare of their children.
Especially when a separation is difficult, a specific parenting agreement can avoid or reduce the need for costly and time-consuming litigation. If jointly drafted, a good parenting plan will be specific and personal to the needs of the parents and their children. In the best case, the plan is jointly drafted by both parents. Who else knows the needs of your children better than those who have raised them and cared for them? The alternative is to leave very important decisions to a judge who knows very little about your family. In fact, the courts would prefer parents work together to come to a satisfactory parenting plan.
Drafting a parenting plan is not easy. There are dozens of decisions to make. These include how the time will be divided between parties; how holidays and vacations are planned; authority over physical, mental health, and educational decisions. Reaching agreement on these matters can be difficult and emotional. Here mediation can be very helpful. A mediator is a neutral third party who helps guide the conversation to decisions that work best for all concerned. During the process, the mediator helps to keep the lines of communication open, create ideas, and assist in making decisions. Mediators help keep the couple focused on the issues at hand.
In some cases, divorce attorneys may suggest parties attend mediation to work through the parenting issues. The parenting agreement will then become the bases for the divorce agreement. The court may also refer parties to mediation.
Mediation gives both parties more control over the decisions. They have more, and better, information than the court will ever have. Mediation offers more flexibility and creativity in finding solutions. This is more likely to create a more durable agreement.
Together with the parents, the mediator explores all aspects of family life. They will focus on the best interests of the child, which is the major concern of the court. They will help determine how often, and when, each parent will see the child and which home will become the primary residence. They will help decide which religion the child will be brought up in and which schools will be attended. Since implementing the plan will require coordination and planning, a communication plan between parents will be agreed on. The parenting plan may also have a dispute resolution section, appointing a mediator and/or facilitator to attend to any disputes that may arise between the parents and to intervene in circumstances where one parent breaches the plan.
The Maryland Courts website has a number of resources including very good videos on child custody. Go to https://mdcourts.gov and search “child custody” or call the Maryland Court Help Center 410-260-1392 8:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday-Friday.
For a divorcing couple with children, creating a parenting plan is one of the most important tasks to accomplish successfully. Mediation can be an effective process to help both parties design a plan that works best for their children and for the parents, too.
Steve Forrer, former dean and vice chancellor of University of Maryland Global Campus, is currently a mediator for the Maryland District and Circuit Courts. Questions can be submitted at www.doncastermediation.com/contact for Steve to answer in this column. He also accepts private mediations