What Should Be Included in a Child Custody Plan?

child custody

Working out the details of a divorce settlement can be a difficult emotional process for the spouses, and when children are involved, few subjects can be touchier than dealing with the issues that will shape the kids’ future upbringing. The custody agreement has to be thorough, so as to address as many scenarios as possible, while still allowing the spouses an appropriate level of flexibility in their co-parenting efforts. To that end, here are some of the important elements of what should be included in a child custody plan.

Where Do The Kids Live?

The most basic element of the custody plan will be that of physical custody—the decisions regarding which parent the child will live with. This decision, along with all others in the custody process are based exclusively on the best interests of the child. The state of Tennessee does presume that, unless proven otherwise, those best interests are served by both parents having equal roles in the child’s life. But if there is a conflict, the decision on what’s best for the child is all that matters.

A prime example is in whether one parent will have sole physical custody, or if that custody will be shared, with kids going back and forth between each parent’s houses at agreed-upon intervals. Consider a scenario where both parents are responsible and capable, and both want custody. But one of them lives significantly closer to the school where the kids go. It’s possible, in a situation like this, that the child’s best interests might be served by full-time residence with the parent closer to school.

Of course, the non-custodial parent still has rights, most notably that of visitation. Which brings us to the next element of a custody plan.

The Terms of Visitation

A well-drafted custody agreement will spell out the details of visitation. Agreements that have vague language like “Non-custodial parent gets every other weekend” are asking for potential disagreements down the line. A good agreement will contain language saying something to the effect of “Non-custodial parent will pick children up from school every other Friday, and maintain custody until Sunday evening, when the children are to be brought home between 7 PM and 8 PM.”

See the difference? There is no room for misunderstanding when the weekend starts, when the kids have to be home by, and how long the non-custodial parent is obligated to keep them until on Sunday.

A similar approach is to be taken with holidays. Having the kids for holidays on an every-other-year basis is a common arrangement, and often a fair one. Does the same parent get both Thanksgiving and Christmas in one year, or do they split the holidays on a rotating basis. What about spring break? Or other three-day weekends. The custody plan should spell out exactly how the rotation system will work, and then use language similar to what’s above for weekend visitation regarding start and end times.

Taking Vacations

If a parent has the kids for spring break, does that include the right to go somewhere fun? The length of a vacation time is to be spelled out, as well as any permissions that might be required of the other parent. For example, one parent might be skittish about the kids being taken into the mountains to go hiking. Another might have concerns about a trip abroad. The custody agreement should spell out whether the other parent must sign off in writing on a proposed vacation plan.

The summer is one long vacation for kids. In addition to contractual language on trips, parents should also discuss if the basic rules of physical custody will change during the summer months. Let’s return to our example above, where one parent has to settle for visitation rights because they live too far from the school. Giving that parent full custody during the summer might be a way to make that up without compromising the best interests of the child. In such a scenario, the other parent, who normally has the kids during the school year, would presumably have visitation .

Legal Custody: Who Decides?

Parenting involves a lot of decisions that have to be made in a child’s life. Who has the authority to decide what school the kids will attend? If a decision is made on private school, which one will it be? Will the children have a religious upbringing? If so, what faith are they going to receive instruction in? If a doctor has medical recommendations for the kids, who decides what action to take?

These are big-picture decisions. There are also countless smaller decisions that have to be made. Will the kids get that permission slip signed to go on a field trip at school? For medical decisions, accepting a prescription recommendation may be considerably less consequential than a decision regarding surgery. Do both parents always have to sign off, or are there are some decisions small enough that one parent can decide?

All of this has to be worked out in the custody agreement. It’s important to emphasize that legal custody does not always follow physical custody. That is, it’s very possible for one parent to have sole physical custody, while legal custody rights are held jointly. The example we’ve been using about the parent who lives too far from the school is a perfect case-study. This parent might not be able to equally share physical custody, but they can get joint legal custody. The practicalities of how this will work out has to be addressed in a responsible child custody plan.

Experience Matters

Attorneys that have drafted a lot of custody agreements and worked with a lot of clients can offer a significant advantage—the acquired knowledge that comes from knowing what problems are most likely to arise in a co-parenting situation and what solutions are most likely to provide legal clarity. The lawyers at Conner & Roberts, PLLC have been serving the eastern and middle regions of Tennessee for over 40 years. We want to help you next. Call our office at (423) 299-4489 or contact us online today to set up a free consultation.

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