The Importance of a Co-Parenting Agreement
When a married couple decide to divorce, the children are a major consideration since they play such an important part of their lives. Even unmarried parents who go through a split will need to make some plans. Too often, incomplete co-parenting plans result in future litigation over some aspect of the rights and responsibilities that were either unaddressed or improperly addressed. In Virginia, the best interest of the child standard for custody and support favors joint legal and physical custody in some form or another, but the devil is in the details, and it is important to reality test possible options to make sure that they are feasible. Here are some issues that need thoughtful consideration.
Parents in conflict may not have great communication. But to continue co-parenting, they will need to be in touch for many reasons. If nothing else, joint legal custody requires that all important decisions about health and education be made in consultation with one another. Realistically, parents will have to tend to many issues, so they should come to an agreement about the best medium for contacting one another – i.e., phone, email, or text.
Communication also plays an important part in the relationship between the parents and the child. The parent who has actual physical custody of the child needs to have clarity around means and timing of communication between the other parent and the child. At what age will the child get a cell phone, and who will pay the bill? What steps does the parent have to take to make sure the child has contact with the other parent? Is there a right and obligation to a daily call? What happens if the child is unwilling or uninterested in communication? These questions should be answered in a co-parenting agreement prior to a divorce or a break-up.
Not only is education a topic on which parents with joint legal custody have to consult, there are numerous practicalities that arise when there is joint physical custody. Unlike a split physical custody arrangement, children cannot divide their time between schools, so the parents need to decide where the child will register and attend. Northern Virginia schools are highly sought after and the districts have rules about qualifying to register. It’s important to be aware of these rules when coming to a decision about the parenting schedule and in which school the child will be placed.
Once the child is registered, the parents need to have an understanding about their involvement in school activities. Who will attend parent-teacher conferences? Which parent will be listed as the primary contact in the event of an emergency? A solid co-parenting agreement will address these types of questions and have some mechanism for resolving disputes should they arise.
One challenging question is the expense of education. Where one parent wants a minor child to go to private school, will the other parent be obliged to pay a share of the expense? What about college? Be aware that if the parties cannot agree, and the matter goes to a trial, the judge is unlikely to order payment of higher education costs. Finally, many couples open a 529 account for their child, which needs to be addressed at the time of the divorce or other division of assets.
Like education, health decisions require input from parents with joint legal custody. In cases of urgency or disagreement, the child’s care needs to have a back-up plan, which should be part of any co-parenting agreement. It should also address how to choose a provider, insurance coverage and scheduling of and attendance at wellness checkups and dental appointments.
A huge source of contention between parents revolves around the holidays and vacations. There are any number of options, but it is important to determine a fair way to allow both parents to spend quality time with their child. A good agreement will address questions about timing of transfer and transportation to and from the destination home. It will also anticipate issues like travel across state lines or out of the country. Summer camp can be quite controversial. For some parents, finding daytime activities for their child during school breaks is a necessity due to work obligations. However, camps are expensive, and ordinary child support may not be enough to cover the cost, so it is important to spend time thinking through the child’s needs and the reality of the situation.
Raising a child involves so many decisions and plans that can be sources of disagreement. Rather than wait until the issue comes up as a dispute, it is well worth the effort to work with professionals to come up with a co-parenting plan as part of a divorce or other separation agreement. At Reese Law, we help clients consider all the possibilities and reality-test their potential solutions. If assuring the smoothest possible co-parenting of your children is a priority, contact us for a consultation.
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