The Parenting Agreement

Parenting agreements are legal documents that outline the terms and conditions of the custody of a child. 

Most child custody cases can be resolved before a case needs to go to court. This can happen due to informal negotiations between the parents or other parties (and their attorneys). Or, it can happen through alternative dispute resolution processes like mediation or collaborative law. Below is a discussion about parenting agreements and court approval in child custody cases.

What Is a Parenting Agreement?

Suppose the parents or other parties in a custody dispute (and their attorneys) negotiate and resolve all child custody and visitation issues. In that case, the couple's decisions are finalized in detail in a written agreement. Different states use different terms to describe this agreement, including:

  • Settlement agreement
  • Custody agreement
  • Parenting plan

When a child's parents separate or divorce, it is important to establish a parenting agreement to ensure the well-being and proper care of the child. These agreements help parents determine important aspects of parenting. This can include topics like child support, parenting time, and decision-making.

What Should the Agreement Include?

A good parenting agreement should address several key areas to provide clarity and stability for the child and the parents. Keep in mind that such agreements will vary from case to case. But they typically cover the key areas affecting the parents' children, such as:

  • Custody arrangement: This defines the custody of the child, outlining whether it will be joint custody (joint physical custody and joint legal custody), sole legal custody, or sole physical custody. Joint custody means both parents can make major decisions about the child's upbringing. This includes decisions about education, healthcare, and extracurricular activities. The agreement should also define how important decisions about the child's life will be made and how decision-making will be handled. Joint custody is a shared living arrangement where the child spends equal or significant time with both parents. The custody arrangement should define which parent's home the child lives in and when.
  • Parenting time and visitation rights: This section outlines each parent's time with the child. This should include a detailed parenting schedule specifying pick-up and drop-off times and locations. This section can also include details about how the child will spend major holidays, birthdays, and vacations. It is important to be specific. Consider the child's age, school schedule, and extracurricular activities to create a realistic and reasonable visitation schedule. The agreement can also address how to handle contact with non-parents like grandparents, family friends, and other third parties.
  • Child support: Child support is an important aspect of any parenting agreement. It ensures that both parents contribute financially to the child's upbringing and cover expenses such as food, clothing, education, and healthcare. The agreement should clearly state the amount of child support to be paid and the frequency of the payments.
  • Health and medical care: This section addresses the child's healthcare needs. This can include medical insurance coverage, the responsibility for medical expenses, and procedures for informing the other parent about medical appointments and emergencies. It is crucial to focus on the child's well-being and ensure both parents have access to important medical information.

Many states have specific requirements for things that must be addressed in parenting agreements. Remember that the above are simply some of the most common and important issues dealt with by parents splitting up. Parents can customize an agreement to their and their children's specific needs in countless ways.

Parenting Agreements and Court Approval

Once the parenting agreement is drafted, it must be submitted to the family court for final approval. The court will review the agreement to ensure it is in the best interests of the child. Courts typically favor agreements that promote joint legal custody. Courts also encourage both parents to maintain a meaningful relationship with the child.

If the custody agreement is part of the parents' divorce, the agreement is filed in court in the county/district branch of the state court where the parents filed the divorce petition. An informal court hearing may follow. The judge might ask some basic factual questions during this hearing. If the court finds one parent "unfit," they may lose the right to joint legal custody or joint physical custody, or both. They will have reduced parental rights with the minor child. The non-custodial parent may be obligated to pay child support through the custody order or separate child support order. The agreement will almost always receive court approval as long as the judge finds that it:

  • Was negotiated fairly
  • Complies with any statutory requirements
  • Was made with the best interests of the child in mind

Violating a Court-Approved Parenting Agreement

A court-approved parenting agreement is a legally binding document. Violating this document can have serious consequences. In most states, the agreement becomes a binding court order or "decree." The order will dictate the parents' (or other parties') rights and obligations going forward.

If one parent fails to follow the agreement, the other parent can take legal action to enforce the terms or seek modifications. For example, suppose it's been converted into a court order, and the agreement is violated by a father who repeatedly fails to return his daughter on time after weekend visits. In that case, the mother may go to court to enforce the agreement and resolve the matter. It is important to respect the agreement and work toward co-parenting in the best interests of the child.

Get Legal Help Drafting a Parenting Agreement

A parenting agreement can save you time, money, and anxiety during a divorce proceeding. But, it's not always easy for separated parents to speak to each other, let alone agree. That's where family law attorneys can make a big difference.

It is beneficial to seek legal advice from a qualified attorney specializing in family law and child custody matters. Child custody attorneys can provide guidance. They can ensure that the child custody agreement covers all necessary aspects to protect the child's well-being. Lawyers can help you with custody laws and the different types of custody. Get help today, and find an experienced family law attorney near you.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Both parents can seek custody of their children — with or without an attorney
  • An attorney can help get the custody and visitation agreement you want
  • An attorney will advocate for your rights as a parent

A lawyer can help protect your rights and your children's best interests. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child custody arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and provide for your children. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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