Children in California whose parents are no longer in a relationship benefit when their parents can work together to create customized and workable parenting plans. Psychological research shows that children are deeply affected by conflict between their parents, whether the parents are together or not. The best way to protect your children from the harmful effects of divorce is to do whatever you can to reduce conflict between you and the other parent.

Parenting plans are comprehensive documents that provide clarity on how decisions about the children are made and and when a child will be in the care of one parent or the other. A parenting plan can account for the unique needs of each family and can be carefully tailored to reduce arguments and to protect children from the negative aspects of divorce or separation.

Physical versus legal custody

It’s important to understand the distinction between legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make decisions relating to the health, education and welfare of the child. Decisions relating to school enrollment, medical treatment and participation in extra-curricular activities are generally considered to be part of the decisions made by a legal custodian. As a general rule, each parent has full authority to make decisions about a child. For example, either parent may sign the permission slip for a school field trip (both parents are usually not required to sign). The equal power to make decisions typically continues after the parents split up, unless there is an agreement or court order that says otherwise. It is relatively unusual for one parent to assume sole legal custody, unless circumstances clearly require such an arrangement.

In a parenting plan, parents can delineate which decisions they will want to be made jointly. In addition to school enrollment, some parents may want to include decisions regarding body piercing and tattoos. The parenting plan can also provide how disagreements will be resolved.

Physical custody, in contrast, is about which parent will be “on duty” and responsible for caring for a child at any particular time. While statutory law defines joint physical custody as the situation where both parents have significant parenting time with a child, it does not have to mean an equal sharing of time. The key is to have a sharing of responsibilities so that a child has the best possible relationship with both parents and the child feels that both parents are involved in his or her life. For some parents, this may require a very detailed agreement or court order. For other parents, with good communication and few conflicts, the parenting schedule can be less detailed and more flexible.

School week

A parenting plan, even one for young children, must account for the school year. If both parents do not live within a reasonable commuting distance from the school that the child will attend, it may be more difficult for the child to spend overnights during the week in each parent’s home.

Special events and holidays

Details need to be clear on how parents will split holidays and other special days during the year. Parents may agree to swap time with their children each year or they may agree to celebrate some of these events together.

Dispute resolution

If every parenting dispute that arises must involve attorneys and be submitted to a judge for decision, the financial burden on the parents can be overwhelming. It is always preferred to set up a mechanism to resolve parenting disputes before they require court intervention. Including a clause in your parenting plan that requires mediation before returning to court may prevent future disputes from escalating.