A recent change in West Virginia’s child custody law makes it even more important for divorcing parents to plan how to share decision-making and custody of their children.
Parents can still share decision-making and allocate custodial time at the time of divorce. Prior to the change, the law included a presumption that decision-making be shared. The new provision, which took effect just this summer, includes a presumption that custodial time be shared equally. While the presumption can be defeated under certain conditions, going forward both decision-making and custodial time will usually be shared equally. This change makes having an effective parenting plan even more important.
Parenting Plans Protect Kids and Families
In a parenting plan, the parents document how they will make decisions about their child’s religious and educational upbringing and medical issues. The plan also details how the child will live in two houses at once, celebrate important holidays, and enjoy a summer vacation. When parents divorce and present the agreed-upon plan to the court, the judge will adopt it as part of the court order if they believe it promotes the best interest of the child.
Tips to Make Plans Work
Here are a few tips parents can use to create a parenting plan that works for their family.
Create a deep, durable agreement – Think beyond this week or this month. Try to anticipate changes that may occur in the next few years. An agreement that addresses difficult subject areas now may help make it possible for parents to maintain a healthy relationship into the future.
Be precise, but create flexibility – Start by being decisive and precise. Decide on a schedule for each parent’s custodial time: days, times, where to transfer custody, etc., and put the details in writing. Only then should you include a provision that allows for flexibility or changes by agreement.
When thinking about custodial schedules, review your work schedules – Explore work schedules to find times when parents are not working and can be with the children. Maximize the time parents (and not third parties) can spend with the children.
Maintain traditions in sharing holidays – What are your family and extended family’s holiday traditions? Can they be maintained? I often see families where one side celebrates Christmas Eve and the other Christmas Day. Some have Thanksgiving dinner early in the day and others in the evening. Figuring out how to maintain those traditions and help maintain extended family relationships can often create a more successful plan.
Spell out how you will share decision-making – What church or school will your child attend? When might that change? What physician will your children go to? Who will schedule appointments? Should both parents agree about extra-curricular activities? How will you resolve differences when you disagree? Mediation? Deciding this at the beginning of co-parenting can help minimize miscommunications and provide a framework for sharing decisions.
Avoid generic parenting plan forms – You can find many templates for parenting plans on the internet. It is okay to read them, but avoid adopting them as your own. They may involve laws in a different state. Or they may focus on areas that are not important to you or may overlook those you need to address. Your family’s needs are unique.
Don’t go it alone – Consider working with a mediator, a family therapist, or a collaborative divorce team to create a plan. Having a neutral third party helps structure your conversations and may make them more productive. Experienced professionals may also help identify areas that you may not have considered. Some firms, like my own, offer a sliding fee scale for low-income families.
Brenda Waugh, MA JD, is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. A graduate of the University of Virginia, West Virginia University, and Eastern Mennonite University, she has conducted workshops throughout the United States and in Canada and has published articles in periodicals and legal journals in the area of alternative dispute resolution. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.By Brenda Waugh