Creating a Child Custody Plan That Works

When parents of children in California are contemplating a divorce, separation, or ending a domestic partnership, great care should be given to the crafting of a child custody and support plan. Having a written detailed custody plan will help parents avoid misunderstandings and lessen the chance of future litigation.

Determine Legal & Physical Custody Arrangement

The first step in creatng a child custody plan is determining which parent is to have legal and physical custody of the children.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to a parent’s ability to make decisions for his/her child regarding education, medical decisions, travel, extracurricular activities, and other important matters. It is common, but not required, for the parent who has physical custody of a child to also have legal custody. It is also possible for parents to share legal custody.

In a shared legal custody arrangement, both parents share the responsibility of makng legal decisions on behalf of their children. This includes making decisions on where their children will attend school, the medical care they will receive, and their place of worship. The marital settlement agreement should specify the aspects of legal custody both parents will exercise.

Note, if one parent is awarded legal custody (sole legal custody), then he/she will have the right to make legal decisions on behalf of the children. In such an arrangement, the parent having legal custody would have to give permission for certain important decisions. This includes where the children may travel, receive non-emergency medical care or mental health treatment, and whether the children can participate in extra-curricular activities.

Physical Custody

Physical custody refers to which parent the children will primarily reside with. When one parent has sole physical custody, the children will primarily reside with that parent. The other parent may have reaonable visitation, which may include weekends, summers, or holidays.

In joint physical custody arrangements, the children will divide their time between each parent’s residence. Joint physical custody does not mean that the children will spend exactly half of their time with each parent, but the parents will share decisions as to where the children will live during the school year and during vacations.

What to Include in a Child Custody Agreement

Some couples have a good working relationship after a separation or divorce, but even the most amicable relationship may become strained when custody and visitation issues are not sufficiently spelled out in a written agreement. Even if a couple is working well together shortly after a breakup, circumstances may change: a party may be offered a job in another city or state, a party may re-marry, or one or both parties may have children with new partners. A good custody agreement will take into account these possible life changes. A custody agreement should address the following:

    • Which parent will have legal custody of the children? If legal custody is shared, how will the parent communicate and make important decisions?
    • How will physical custody be shared?
    • Where will the children go to school, and how will the parents decide on changes in schooling?
    • Where will the children spend their summer vacations and other school breaks?
    • Who will have visitation on major holidays and on the children’s birthdays?
    • What will happen if a parent is transferred or wants to move to another city, state, or country?
    • Who will pay for the children’s health insurance and non-covered medical expenses?
    • Who will pay for the children’s college tuition or other post-secondary education?
    • What if a child is or becomes disabled and needs care after the age of eighteen?

These are just some of the questions that should be considered when preparing a custody agreement. A California family law attorney will be able to draft a custody plan that will cover these issues.

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