Separating is never easy when you have a child together. It is difficult to hold negative feelings for your ex, and at the same time acknowledge the positive feelings your child has for the other parent. But your ability to regulate your emotions and to put your child’s needs first will increase your child’s emotional stability, cognitive growth, and ability to create trusting and meaningful relationships.
Coming to an agreement with your ex before or soon after you separate is crucial to creating stability and a positive co-parenting relationship. Below are five things to consider when creating your custody plan.
Your daily routine includes your work schedule, your ex’s work schedule, your child’s schedule (school, activities, etc.), and any other factors that play a part in your daily lives. Do you use a daycare agency or a family member? Do you travel for work on a regular basis? Who has the flexibility to take care of your child in an emergency?
Another important discussion is your child’s routine. What does he do in the morning? When is bedtime? What time do you normally have dinner? Is there a special bedtime routine? Having the same routine for your child in both households creates less stress and anxiety, as your child follows similar rules and expectations for both parents.
Your Child’s Needs
What schedule works best can depend largely on the child’s age. Children generally do best when they have regular and consistent contact with both parents. However, younger children benefit more from having one parent as the “primary parent,” i.e. has most of the time, and the “non-primary parent” has regular contact. For a very young child, this could mean the non-primary parent cares for the child for several hours three or four days a week. For toddlers, time away from the primary parent can increase, such as spending two-three overnights with the non-primary parent throughout the week. At school age (5-6), children are ready to gradually transition into a long-term schedule which 1) gives significant time to both parents, and 2) keeps interruptions to their schedule and exchanges between households to a minimum.
Note that several different types of schedules were listed here. An important concept for both parents to realize is that custody schedules are not set in stone. They can change depending on the circumstances. As your child grows older, as you get a new job, as your child moves from middle school to high school – your schedule can change to accommodate the needs of your family.
Your child may have other factors to consider such as special needs, other siblings, the child’s maturity, and the bonds with each parent. In some cases it can make sense to have several exchanges for an older child, or overnights with a non-primary parent for an infant. A schedule based on age is a good starting point, but the best rule to follow is what works best for your family.
Use a Calendar
Once you have addressed schedules and considered your child’s needs, you will be ready to lay out the custody plan in a concrete way. Get a large, printed calendar to create a schedule that is visually clear for both parents. If your child is old enough to have a good concept of time, a calendar may also help him or her feel secure and have less anxiety about transitions between households.
Considering the age and needs of your child lets you know how many days or how often your child should be with each parent. So how is this accomplished?
- Look at both parents’ schedules. Try to create a schedule that provides quality time for both parents. Split weekends, holidays, or other days off equally.
- Be flexible. Do one or both parents travel for work? If it is regular travel, a schedule can be created around it. If it happens occasionally, decide if there will be makeup time before or after the trip. When a child is sick, will you follow the regular schedule or will you change your schedule for that week?
- Decide where your child will be picked up and dropped off. Can your ex drop off your child at your house, or should you meet somewhere halfway? If your child is school-age, exchanges can happen when the school day begins and ends rather than create another transition. Do both parents have reliable transportation? Perhaps one parent is in charge of dropping off and one parent is in charge of picking up.
It is worth your time to discuss several options with your ex to coordinate the smoothest transition between households. This will reduce stress on both parents and child. Planning together will help prevent problems from popping up later.
Speak with an Attorney
Of course, even when all of the above things are considered, some parents still cannot agree on what would be in the best interest of their child. If this is the case, meeting with an attorney is crucial to help you decide what your legal rights are and how to preserve those rights in the face of litigation. Sometimes a neutral pair of eyes on the problem is all that is needed to get an agreement. On the other hand, if one parent refuses to agree, or agrees to a schedule but then never follows it, an attorney will help you navigate the system to get a court order and to get that order enforced.
It is important to meet with an attorney even if you have a full agreement. An attorney will help you put your agreement in writing, will make sure every aspect of your agreement is addressed, and identify important topics which you may have missed. An attorney will also help you navigate the court system to open your case and file the court order as quickly as possible.
Get a Court Order
A common misconception is that if parents agree on a custody schedule, then they should not have to go to court. However, a court order helps protect both you and your child from any future disagreements. With a court order in place, it is less likely that the schedule will be changed by a parent without an agreement. If a change does occur, the court order provides consequences. If you cannot agree on a schedule, the judge creates a schedule for you which both parents must follow. Whether it is a schedule you agreed on, or one you went to court for, the schedule will be clear and everyone will be on the same page. It sounds obvious, but the less parents fight – even when the child is not around – the better it is for their child.
About our Guest Blogger
Rebecca Mulcahy, J.D., is a family law attorney located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mother of two and a military spouse, Ms. Mulcahy was born and raised in Albuquerque and graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law. Ms. Mulcahy’s law practice focuses on adoption, divorce, child custody, child support, and kinship guardianship. This post is for informational use only and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Every family is unique, and as such this post does not provide legal advice for a specific situation or person. To discuss your case and get legal advice, please visit www.MulcahyLawNM.com or call (505) 595-1430 to schedule a consultation.