Even though you are divorced or divorcing your significant other, you both will remain tied together as parents for the rest of your lives. That means that working together for the best interest of your child or children, no matter what your own differences are, as the Honorable Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Burke F. McCahill wisely reminds parents in his courtroom: “You are getting a divorce from each other…you are not getting a divorce from your children.”
One way to help ensure a better outcome for your offspring is to establish a written parenting agreement. In this agreement, you lay out the terms for sharing parental rights and duties and how each parent will maintain a strong bond with and play a significant role in your children’s lives. Typical agreements include terms about where the child will live (physical custody), visitation schedules, legal custody, schedules for holidays, birthdays and vacations, contact with other relatives, and how changes to the agreement will be handled.
Avoid the Judge
It is almost always best for parents to work out a parenting agreement for their children outside the courtroom. If, however, an agreement cannot be reached, a judge may be called upon to make a ruling. Delegating these important decisions to a judge who knows very little about you or your children, even after hours of court hearings, is rarely in your children’s best interest.
Consider the Child’s Point of View
Unless a parent is truly unfit, parenting agreements should not be used to marginalize one parent’s role in favor of the other. Keep in mind that, until your separation and divorce, your children have had the opportunity to see each parent on a daily basis or during weekends. You must consider how to limit the impact the divorce will have on a child’s interaction with each parent and avoid alienation of either parent, whether directly or indirectly.
Limit Legal Labels
Consider using ordinary language in your agreement rather than lawyer-speak or labels. Ask yourself if it is really necessary to refer to one parent as “the primary physical custodian” while the other is merely “the visiting parent.” Instead, you could use the term “parenting time” when referring to the time each of you will have with your children, even if it is necessary to identify just one of your homes as the “home base” for purposes of school registration and attendance or claiming your children on tax returns.
Create a framework that allows for flexibility with each other. Ask yourself: “If I was the one being asked to agree to this parenting schedule, would I think it was fair and in the best interests of the children?” As children grow up and develop interests, remain flexible to changes in parenting schedules; you may not be able to keep to the original “typical custodial/visitation schedule.” Consider also including a “Right of First Refusal” that allows for a parent who misses schedule parenting time to make up dates – assuming that the missed parenting time was due to circumstances outside that parent’s control that caused a need for rescheduling.
Many divorcing parents are able to work out parenting agreements between themselves. Others rely on legal counsel or working with a mediator. As a last resort, a few must submit to a judge to determine division of parental responsibilities and visitation. The resulting decision of a judge can and often does frustrate both parents as being not ideal for themselves or their children – not to mention the thousands of dollars spent to obtain that decision from a judge that could otherwise have been spent on the needs of your children.
Whether you draw up your own agreement, or have questions regarding a parenting agreement, we welcome your contacting at the Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. for guidance. Attorneys Patricia Tichenor and Camellia Safi are here to assist in drafting an agreement that balances the concerns surrounding your divorce while ensuring your children best interests are not harmed in the end. Please contact us today.