Can You Set Up a Co-Parenting Arrangement Without Going Through the Courts?
If you are a parent going through a divorce, you are probably anxious to begin creating a stable post-divorce environment for your children.
Fortunately, there is no need to wait for a court to make decisions about what is best for your family. You and your co-parent can start developing an agreement whenever you are ready.
Being able to create a co-parenting plan without court assistance is a good omen for your post-divorce co-parenting relationship. It shows that, whatever your differences, you can still work together to prioritize the health and wellbeing of your children.
That has not to say that reaching accord is easy, but it will be healthier and less stressful for the entire family if you can.
About Co-Parenting Agreements
A co-parenting plan is a written agreement that addresses how the parents will care and provide for their children after the divorce.
It establishes a schedule for custody and visitation arrangements and clarifies issues such as education, child support, health care, division of day-to-day parental responsibilities, and other child-related matters.
These plans can be as detailed as you want them to be, as parents can include virtually any information that will help set clear boundaries and smooth the functioning of their family post-divorce.
Once you have written the agreement, you or your lawyer will submit it to the court. Courts usually will not interfere with a parenting agreement as long as its provisions are in the child’s best interest.
In most cases, the court will review the agreement and issue an order affirming the new arrangements without requiring substantial changes.
Negotiating with Your Co-Parent
How to begin negotiating a parental agreement? If you are on good terms with your former spouse or partner, arrange a quiet time to sit down together to discuss the matter. Even with such informal negotiations, it is wise to come prepared.
Both you and your co-parent should thoughtfully consider and write out your desires concerning the children’s post-divorce life before the meeting, including issues such as:
- Physical custody (e.g., with whom the child will live)
- Legal custody (i.e., who will make major life decisions for the child)
- Visitation schedules
- Holiday custody schedule
- Temporary changes to the schedule (i.e., emergencies, travel, etc.)
- Education (e.g., school, tuition responsibilities, extra-curricular)
- Child support and child-related expenses
- Medical insurance and expenses
- Tax income deduction (i.e., who will take the deduction)
- Communication frequency/mode between parents
It is unlikely that you will resolve all issues in one meeting. Write down the points you agree on at the end of every session and note what still needs discussion.
If you reach an impasse over any issue, do not immediately assume that the courts will have to resolve it—there are other options.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
If you and your co-parent are deadlocked on a few issues relating to the co-parenting arrangement or have trouble communicating effectively, consider trying Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) before turning to the court.
ADR is acknowledged to be less adversarial, stressful, and expensive than traditional litigation. It is a good choice for divorcing parties who agree on many issues but could benefit from the guidance or advice of a third party to resolve outstanding ones.
ADR can take many forms, including mediation or collaborative family law. Both of these forms are particularly helpful in resolving child custody-related issues.
In a mediation proceeding, a neutral third party (the mediator) will work with you and your co-parent to reach an agreement on all unresolved issues, if possible.
The mediator’s job is to get communication flowing between the parties, propose solutions, facilitate the decision-making process, test ideas, and ensure that the couple stays focused on relevant issues.
The mediation process is private and confidential, unlike litigation, and adaptable to the needs of the parents. The average couple has 4 to 10 sessions with the mediator.
Research has shown that divorcing parties walk away from mediation more satisfied with their results than those who resort to traditional litigation.
Collaborative Family Law
Alternatively, you can turn to Collaborative Family Law to resolve co-parenting issues outside of the courtroom.
Collaborative family law enables parties to work through their problems with the support of their lawyers and other professionals (such as financial advisors) specially trained in the collaborative family law process.
Unlike mediators, collaborative family law lawyers are not impartial but provide advice to their clients throughout negotiations. However, the goal remains to reach a mutually satisfactory co-parenting agreement with as little discord as possible.
If the negotiations fail and the parties decide to go to court to resolve the issues, the lawyers on both sides are contractually prohibited from representing the parties further—a great incentive for everyone to work toward an amicable resolution.
Katherine Eisold Miller is the founder of the Miller Law Group and a Director and Trainer with the Center for Understanding in Conflict. She has been working in the field of family law for more than 30 years as a mediator as well as an advocate. She hosts the radio show/podcast, Divorce Dialogues. In addition, she is co-author of the #1 Amazon bestseller “A Cup of Coffee with 10 of the Top Divorce Attorneys in the United States” and the author of the “New Yorker’s Guide to Collaborative Divorce.” Her many media accolades include interviews on CBS New York, NBC New York, as well as features in New York Times, Newsday, Money Magazine, Splitopia, TheStreet.com, Huffpost, and BravoTV to name a few.