Writing a child custody and visitation plan

Here’s what you need to know about different custody arrangements and how to suggest a plan that meets your family's needs.

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Divorce or dissolution is often hardest on the kids. They’re caught between two parents who want to live different lives in different homes—sometimes in different cities. Parents often disagree on the best way to raise the children. And the court has standard visitation arrangements which you need to consider. 

It can be hard to navigate through all that to request a custody and visitation plan that is in the best interest of your child. In order to do that, it’s important to:

  • Put the interests of your kids first
  • Convince the court that you and your spouse are putting your kids first

Understand the paperwork you will need

The way you file a parenting plan to the court will depend on the way you're ending your marriage:

  • If you're getting a dissolution, you will write up a parenting plan together with your spouse and file it with your marriage dissolution paperwork.
  • If you're getting a divorce, file a request for "temporary orders" to define what will happen with your child while the divorce is in process. If you and your spouse can both agree on a child custody arrangement that’s fair and in the best interest of your kids, that can make the end of your marriage easier on everyone. It can also keep the court out of your family life. After you file temporary orders, your spouse could then agree with your temporary orders or they could file their own plan.  
  • If you and your spouse can’t agree on custody and visitation issues, strongly consider getting a lawyer. Custody cases are often very complicated and a lawyer can help you navigate the process.

Understand typical custody and visitation arrangements

Before you write your plan, it’s important to understand what custody is, what visitation is and how each works in different situations. Keep in mind that whatever custody arrangement you reach doesn’t directly affect how child support works

“Primary custody” means your child usually lives with you 

The child spends most nights with the parent with "primary custody." The other parent will likely have visitation—that is, the right to spend time with the child, including overnights. As the "primary custodian," you make all the decisions about how to raise your child.

To make it easier to figure out what a visitation schedule should look like, each county’s court has created standard parenting time schedules that show when your child has time with each parent. Look up what the standard is for your county. For some courts, that standard might be alternate weekends and a month over the summer. For other courts, the standard might be six weeks over the summer.

It's unusual for a court to deny a parent the standard visitation schedule without a compelling reason. For example, it could be dangerous or clearly not in the child’s best interest to spend that amount of time with one of the parents.

Let’s use an example of Sharon, John and Jake:

Sharon and John have one child together, named Jake. The couple has decided to end their marriage. Even though the court's visitation standard says John should see Jake every other weekend, John doesn’t have a stable place to live yet and he works odd hours. Instead of requesting primary custody for herself and standard visitation for John, Sharon asks the court for another arrangement. Until John can secure a safe place to live and a more regular schedule, it’s in Jake’s best interest to spend one weekend day with his dad, every other week, but not spend the night.  

"Shared parenting" means both parents together make key decisions about how to raise the child 

"Shared parenting," sometimes called "joint custody" in other states, means that both parents need to make key decisions together. These decisions include things like where their child will go to school, what their religious upbringing will be and what kind of medical care they will receive. 

This doesn't necessarily mean that your child spends equal time with both parents. You could follow a standard custody and visitation schedules as described above. You could also decide to divide the time your child spends with each parent more equally. 

Let’s use an example of Linda, David and Maria:

Linda and David have a daughter, named Maria. Together, Linda and David have come to an agreement that Maria will stay with David on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and with Linda on the other days. Even though Linda and David have their differences, they will work together to raise Maria. 

There are some issues to keep in mind. It's best not to divide the number of nights the child stays with each parent exactly in half. For instance, they might spend one more night a year with one parent. The parent with the extra night could claim the child as a “dependent,” giving them reduced taxes and increased government benefits. See understanding child support for more information on tax and benefit issues. 

For many, shared parenting sounds better in theory than it works in practice. You will need to agree on all the details of how to raise your child. Make sure that both you and your spouse are ready to partner on raising your child. It can help to include backup plan if you simply can't agree with your spouse. Ultimately, someone needs to make a final decision. Normally that would be one or the other of the parents.

Suggesting a Plan to the Court

Keeping typical custody and visitation arrangements in mind, define what you would like to request. Start by looking at the visitation standard order. If the standard works for you and your family, request it.

If it does not work for you, then it may be easier to create your parenting plan by modifying the standard order rather than starting with a blank sheet of paper to write your parenting plan. The court is more likely to grant a request which is in line with typical arrangements.

Clearly say why it's in the best interests of the child

If you are suggesting anything other than the standard visitation plan, it's not enough to simply detail what you would like to happen. Write out the reasons why your arrangement is fair and in the best interests of the child. 

If you're suggesting less than a typical visitation schedule, say why this is needed. For instance, in the example with Sharon and John above, John did not have stable housing for his son. Or perhaps there are safety issues for the child. 

If you're suggesting more than a typical visitation schedule or shared parenting, it's important to show that the reason you are getting divorced won’t interfere with this arrangement. You will also have to show that it’s practical for the child—for example, your spouse is moving five miles away and not fifty.

Cover the questions the court considers

The court has standard questions that they consider for each custody case. If you and your spouse disagree, or if you want a plan that's less typical, it's useful to address each of these questions in your request. The core questions are:  

  • Have the child’s wishes and relationships with parents, siblings and other family members been taken into account?
  • Will the arrangement disrupt the child’s school-life or involvement with their community?
  • How is the mental and physical health of the parents? 
  • Does either parent or member of their household have a criminal past?
  • Is each parent committed to the arrangement, at least for now? 
  • Does either parent live outside of the state or have any plans to move? 
  • How will the children be supported financially?
  • If the court decides the child is mature enough, have the child's wishes been taken into account?

Write your plan carefully

It's important to be thoughtful when writing your plan. This is especially true if you don't think your spouse will agree. The time and care you put into writing it matters a lot to the court, which could work out in your favor. You’re more likely to get the court’s approval if you address all of the issues raised in the questions above. 

What if you and your spouse disagree? 

If you and your spouse submit different requests for custody and visitation through temporary orders, the court will decide between them. In a complex case, they might hold a hearing to get more information.  

The court will likely decide who the primary parent will be. The court will then order you and your spouse to follow the court's standard visitation schedule unless there's a major reason not to, like your child's safety is at risk. 

It's important that you follow the court’s directions, especially during the time it takes to finalize your divorce. Doing so might influence what the court decides in the end for you and your family.