If you have children and are divorced, separated, or about to file for divorce, you’ve no doubt discovered that the most important issues to address during the dissolution of a marriage is what will happen with the children. Will you have custody? Will your spouse share in that custody? If not, will there be visitation rights that need to be outlined? Or perhaps you might even believe that your soon-to-be ex-spouse shouldn’t have custody or visitation rights.

Children are often described as “victims” of divorce…and rightfully so,  especially when a couple doesn’t take the time to figure things out where the kids are concerned. That’s why having a parenting plan is so important.

What is a parenting plan?

The court systems have tried to move away from using terminology like “sole custody” and “shared visitation”, deciding that such terms have developed very negative connotations. Instead, couples are encouraged to draft a so-called “parenting plan” that uses milder language.

Simply put, parenting plans are written instructions on how parents will raise their children after they are no longer married. They are usually very specific in nature and provide an agreed upon set of rules for the children’s lives after divorce. While that might sound a little harsh or stern, most divorcing couples with children eventually determine that such a plan is necessary.

So, who writes the plan? A couple that works well together and can easily agree upon specifics can write the plan on their own with no intervention from others. Sometimes, the services of a mediator are required or the couple’s individual lawyers may help with the drafting of a parenting plan. However it’s done, it must be in writing so that there’s a legal record of the plans you’ve crafted together. A verbal agreement is not sufficient, even if you trust your spouse wholeheartedly.

Even if you’ve written the plan on your own and are satisfied with it, you should still consult with a legal adviser so that he/she can explain all rights and responsibilities. In some provinces, witnesses may need to sign this legally-binding agreement as well.

What happens after the plan is written?

Once the plan is written, it can be submitted to the courts. According to the Government of Canada, if a parenting plan is submitted to the court, the court must include the plan in the parenting order or the contact order, as the case may be. If you’re not making parenting arrangements under the Divorce Act, you may decide to have your parenting plan included in an order under provincial or territorial law.1

What should be included in a parenting plan?

A spirit of cooperation should be reflected in your parenting plan. It’s been determined that when parents work together amicably to draft such a plan, there tends to be less need for the court to intervene at the time of divorce and in the future. This saves time and aggravation and keeps family harmony going in the years ahead, despite the separation of households.

Of course, each parenting plan is unique depending on the needs of the child(ren) and the circumstances of the parents. In general, however, these issues are important:

  • Outline how each of you will spend time with your children. Besides “normal” times, you’ll need to give special consideration to times such as summer/school breaks, holidays, vacations, and so forth. Holidays, especially, can become contentious times when plans aren’t made in advance. Of course, you can add in some flexibility where needed, sometimes offering more than one option for each circumstance.
  • Consider how you will make decisions about your children and their lives. For example, is it okay for just one parent to give your teenager permission to go on holiday with her boyfriend’s family or must you decide together? A lot of arguments and misunderstandings can be avoided when you talk about this in advance.
  • Think about how you will share information and communicate with the other parent. One of the most destructive ways parents can communicate after divorce is through their children. You should never ask your children to relay important messages or information to the other parent. This can result in parental alienation. (See our other blogs about this topic.) If you decide in advance how you will communicate, sticking to that plan will be the best way to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

Note that financial plans are not included in a parenting agreement. Things like child or spousal support, property division, and other things that involve money are not part of the plan and will be addressed separately by your legal team.

If you need help with co-parenting and mediation issues such as creating a parenting plan, Dr. Bolgar and her staff can assist you. With more than 20 years’ experience with Child Protection and Child and Youth Mental Health Services, Dr. Bolgar can guide you through the process and can continue to help you and your children through the grief that occurs with the divorce and the healing that can eventually occur when things are handled properly.

To schedule an appointment, call 604-371-0198.