What is a Parenting Plan, and Why Are They So Important?

undefinedWho will have the children on the weekends? Which parent will be responsible for the kids’ activities drop-offs and pick-ups? How will the school year impact the kids’ schedule and my time with them?

If you find yourself asking these questions as you navigate a divorce or separation from your partner, you are entering parenting plan territory. Oftentimes, divorcing parents believe that custody will provide the framework for these questions, when in reality, a parenting plan is the document that will address day-to-day schedules for parents and kids. With so much influence on the everyday interactions that you will have with your kids, it goes without saying—parenting plans are important!

We sat down with our Founding Attorney, Lewis Landerholm, to discuss exactly what parenting plans are, strategies for parents to be aware of when creating them, and how parenting plans can be modified as children grow, and life circumstances change.

So, what exactly is a parenting plan?

“A parenting plan in Oregon is the actual plan that dictates how parents are going to operate on a day-to-day basis, post custodial filing, or a divorce filing, when kids are involved. The term ‘custody’ in Oregon refers to decision making, like major medical, school decisions, and some religious decisions. The parenting plan is everything else; who's going to have them on what days, on what evenings, who gets to take them to certain sports or certain activities, and who gets to make those decisions,” says Landerholm.

“So really, to me, it's the meat and potatoes, and it's the most important part of a judgement and of a custodial matter. Sometimes it doesn't come across as being the most important piece, but in reality, most people end up needing to spend more time on their parenting plan than they do on who gets custody.”

Does a parenting plan address child support?

“No, your child support is a separate section of a judgment,” says Landerholm.

“So your child support would be [in the judgment], how all of your debts and assets are divided are in different areas of your judgment, and the custody determination is separate. The parenting plan is really everything from the schedule, to how you're going to handle any differences, and the day-to-day operations. It can be very intricate, and can even be as detailed as who can approve a haircut.”

Who’s in charge of creating the parenting plan—the parents, or a judge?

“Ideally, the parents get together, and they negotiate. Then they—either with their attorneys, a mediator, or on their own—come up with an agreement. But ultimately, if the parties can't decide, then it would go to a judge, and a judge would order the parenting plan and order the schedule,” says Landerholm.

“With most of our clients, we really work hard to help them create the parenting plan. That way they have control over it, rather than giving it to a judge who has a few hours, or a few days even, to hear testimony. The judge doesn't really know the whole story and what's best for the family. In my opinion, [the parents working together] is best for everybody. It’s not always going to be easy, but when it comes to creating the schedule, you know [those details] better than a judge would.”

Are parenting plans unique to the family, or is there a uniform outline?

“My opinion is that the ‘one size fits all’ plans that are out there, they just don't work, because there are all of these things that are going to be original and unique to your family,” says Landerholm.

“What we try to do when we're working with clients is we try to look into the future as far as we can. We're going to try to help and advise on perceived problems within the parenting plan— where there may be an issue—and then try to plan for that issue. As attorneys, we've helped thousands of clients. So we can extrapolate from all of these cases, and help you to understand the pros and the cons of all of these different types of clauses and options so that you can build a plan that actually works for you.”

What happens if a parenting plan no longer works, and needs to be changed?

“A lot of times, people will either get divorced or go through a custody matter, and they've never had to operate separately. So you don't really know where the problems are going to be until you have experience,” says Landerholm.

“[When we’re creating the parenting plan], we’re trying to plan for some of those [problems], but then inevitably, sometimes changes occur. When that happens, it will require a modification later, which can either be through agreement, or through the courts.”

If parents agree on a change to the plan, does it have to be in writing?

“If both parents agree, then it's not required to be in writing to make the change—it can be a verbal agreement to modify the plan for a summer or for a weekend. You don't have to rush to court every time. Plus, ‘rushing to court’ takes eight months to a year—so there's really no rushing to court,” says Landerholm.

“What parents have to realize, though, is that the only enforceable plan is one signed by the judge. So [verbal] changes are fine, but the big changes should be reduced to writing.”

What exactly does the modification process entail?

“It’s similar with the original filing. In your original case, you went through the court system, and if you couldn’t decide, then a judge would order it. It's the same with the modification,” says Landerholm.

“You're filing to modify the parenting plan, and you're going to go to mediation—I believe all of the [Oregon] counties require mediation in parenting plan modifications. Then, if you can agree, you change the parenting plan. If not, then a judge would decide. And again, that's in the best interest of the kids. So you're going to be talking about what works for them, and what doesn't work, and working towards that modified judgment.”

Do you have any words of advice for parents who are in the midst of divorce, and juggling custody and parenting time negotiations?

“You know, a lot of people get caught up on the term 'custody', and while custody is important, the parenting plan is what you what you live with 365 days a year. Custody comes up maybe a couple of times in a kid's life,” says Landerholm.

“So I would definitely get more information on the parenting plan. Reach out, and find as many resources as you can, so that you can make informed decisions for your family.”

If you would like to get in touch with one of our experienced family law attorneys to start discussing strategies for creating a lasting and thoughtfully crafted parenting plan, call us today at (503) 227-0200 to set up your free consultation.