By Cathie Fitzpatrick, Alberta Paralegal Navigator
When parents separate, there are a number of practical and logistical considerations that need to be addressed. One of the most important of these is how to ensure that the children's needs are being met and that they can maintain healthy relationships with both parents. This is where parenting plans come in.
A parenting plan is a written document that outlines the agreement between two parents who are no longer living together about how they will co-parent their children. The parenting plan typically includes details about the physical custody of the children, visitation schedules, decision-making authority for the children, communication between the parents and with the children, as well as other important details that can help ensure that the children's needs are being met.
Why is a parenting plan important?
The goal of a parenting plan is to create a clear and predictable plan for co-parenting to minimize conflict and stress for both the parents and children. A well-crafted parenting plan can provide stability and structure for children as they adjust to their new living arrangements. It can also help parents communicate effectively and work together with their children’s interests in mind. Parenting plans can also:
- provide a clear framework for co-parenting, setting out expectations and responsibilities to minimize confusion and disagreements;
- prioritize the interests of the children, ensuring that their physical, emotional, and developmental needs are met;
- reduce tension and disagreements between parents, which can have a positive impact on the children's emotional well-being;
- help to avoid expensive and time-consuming court battles by serving as a basis for resolving any disputes that may arise; and
- be customized to meet the specific circumstances and needs of each family.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps of creating a parenting plan that works for you and your family. Let’s get started.
Elements of a Parenting Plan
Every family is unique, so every parenting plan will be unique and tailored to meet the specific needs of the family it was created for. However, most parenting plans should contemplate the following:
Decision-Making: Who will make decisions about where your children go to school? Will your children be required to go to church or participate in other religious events? These are the kind of big decisions that can affect your children's lives, and this section of the parenting plan helps you figure out how to handle them. It is important for parents to decide how they will approach decision-making - as a team or with one of you taking the lead. It's also important to establish how you'll resolve any disputes that arise. By working out these details ahead of time, you'll be better equipped to make important decisions in your child's best interests.
Communication: How will you and your co-parent keep each other informed about your children? Will your communication look different if there is an emergency or special circumstance? It's important to consider what you'll do in the event of a medical emergency, and to create a plan for how you'll provide updates about your child's well-being. Even for less urgent matters like school events or important news, it's helpful to have a plan in place for how you'll communicate with one another. You might decide to use a shared calendar, email, text messages, or phone calls - whatever works best for both of you. The goal is to establish clear communication and ensure that both parents are informed about important updates and events in your child's life.
Parenting & Access: This section considers the big question of where your children will live and how you'll divide your time with them. This can take some discussion and negotiation. Think about where the children will live primarily, how often they'll switch between homes, and how you'll handle changes in the schedule. Life can be unpredictable, so it is also important to have a backup plan in case of unexpected events.
Parents should also think about their children's school calendars and make sure they have a plan for who will have the children on professional days, spring and winter break, or over the summer.
One other consideration that comes up often is other people who may be in your children’s life when they are not in your physical custody - such as relatives, friends, or new partners. For example, will introduce your children to a new girlfriend or boyfriend? Will you wait until the relationship is more serious before introducing them to your children, or are you comfortable with them meeting sooner? It's natural to want to move on and start a new relationship after a separation, but it is also important to consider how this will affect your children.
Holiday and special occasions: This section takes the parenting and access provisions one step further to consider any major holidays or special occasions - such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Lunar New Year, as well as other special occasions like birthdays, graduations, or religious celebrations. The plan can also specify which parent will have the children for each holiday or occasion, how the exchange will take place, and any special provisions or limitations. Some parents will rotate holidays every year or having one parent have the children for certain holidays while the other has them for different ones.
Relocation: This section outlines how the parents will handle any potential relocations, including how much notice must be given, how the children's visitation schedule may be affected, and any other special considerations.
Education and extracurricular activities: This section outlines how decisions regarding the children's education and extracurricular activities will be made. This can include how school enrollment and attendance will be handled or how decisions about extracurricular activities such as sports, music lessons, or summer camps will be made.
Dispute Resolution: This section outlines how any disputes between the parents will be resolved. This most commonly would include methods such as negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or court.
Creating a Parenting Plan
Before beginning the process of creating a parenting plan, it is a good idea to speak with a family lawyer or legal coach who can give you legal advice to help you understand your rights or obligations. The lawyer can also provide you direction, specific to your circumstance, on what other provisions you should consider including in your parenting plan.
Once you have a clear understanding of what is legally permitted by law, your rights, and responsibilities, you should take the time to consider what you want to include in your parenting plan and how your children’s needs can best be met.
When you feel prepared, sit down and discuss co-parenting with the other parent. You should both be involved in the process of creating a parenting plan and should be willing to be flexible and collaborative in creating a plan that works for everyone.
This may involve a series of discussions or meetings to address concerns and find solutions.
It isn’t always easy to have these conversations though, so if you are feeling like you need some additional support consider mediation. Mediation is a process in which a neutral third party (aka a mediator) helps the parents reach an agreement on the key issues related to the parenting plan. During the mediation process, the parents meet with the mediator to discuss their concerns and to explore potential solutions. Unlike arbitration or court, the mediator is not there to make any decisions, that remains the responsibility of the parents. Rather, the mediator is there to help facilitate a constructive dialogue between the parents and to find common ground, with the goal of creating a parenting plan that works for everyone involved. Mediation can be a useful tool for parents who are having difficulty reaching an agreement on their own, or who want to ensure that their parenting plan is fair and reasonable for everyone involved. Once the mediation process is complete, most mediators will assist with drafting a parenting plan that reflects the agreements reached by the parents (saving you a little bit of hassle if this isn’t your forté).
If parents decide to negotiate the parenting plan independently, they can hire someone to assist them with drafting and implementing their agreement. The legal coaches and paralegal navigators at Coach My Case have the experience and expertise to help you with this too. In the alternative, you could also hire a law firm (some law firms, like Crossroads Law, offer flat rate services to draft and implement parenting agreements).
If parents want to draft the parenting plan on their own, there are resources available for free online that can help guide you along the way. Check out these ones:
- The Government of Canada has a guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce, a parenting plan checklist, and resources on how children react at different ages and stages available on their website – Create a Parenting Plan (justice.gc.ca); or
- The AFCC Ontario have appointed a parenting plan task force who have created a comprehensive parenting plan guide and template to assist parents, lawyers, mediators, and judges in developing child-focused realistic parenting plans. These resources are free on their website - Parenting Plan Guide and Template - AFCC Ontario.
Once a parenting plan has been created and signed, both parents should make every effort to follow the terms of their agreement as closely as possible.
Independent Legal Advice & Parenting Plans (or Agreements)
Once your parenting plan has been drafted, both parents should take the time to carefully review it to ensure that all their concerns have been addressed and, if they haven’t done so already, they should each consult with a lawyer to receive independent legal advice (“ILA”).
It is very important to understand the agreement and your rights before you sign any family law agreement. Obtaining ILA can help to make sure that the agreement is fair and that you are not signing it under pressure. When you receive ILA, your lawyer will execute and append a certificate of independent legal advice to your agreement. This certificate is important as, without it, there could be an attempt to overturn an agreement on the basis that the other parent did not know what they were signing.
If one parent chooses not to get ILA, you can waive your right to it, but this is highly discouraged. In these instances, it is important that the parent who refuses to receive legal advice signs and appends a waiver of legal advice. Including this waiver will give the other parent some protection as the courts may be less willing to overturn an agreement when the parent was told to seek legal advice but declined to do so. Is it possible to change the parenting plan?
If there is a change in circumstances that affects the parenting plan, one or both parents may need to seek a variation to the plan. Changes in circumstance include, but are not limited to, employment changes, relocation, or other significant life events.
If both parents agree that changes to their parenting plan need to be considered, they should communicate openly and honestly with each other and discuss any proposed changes. If possible, parents should work together to negotiate and decide on any changes.
Once the parents agree on the changes, they should revise their parenting plan accordingly and arrange to sign the amended agreement. Similar to the first time they entered into an agreement, they should ensure that they both receive ILA and that the appropriate certificates are appended to their agreement (see the above section on Independent Legal Advice above).
In the event that the parents are not able to agree on the proposed parenting plan modifications, they should review their current plan and make sure they understand if they have committed to a dispute resolution process already. If there is an agreed dispute resolution process, parents should defer to that process, or they may be subject to additional costs or penalties. When in doubt, consult with a family lawyer or one of the experienced legal coaches at Coach My Case who are also family lawyers. How is a parenting plan enforced?
In Alberta, parenting plans or parenting agreements can be enforced through the courts. If one parent is not complying with the terms of the agreement, the other parent can apply to the court to ask for enforcement. The court may then issue an order requiring the non-compliant parent to adhere to the terms of the agreement. If the non-compliant parent continues to violate the agreement, they may be subject to penalties such as fines or even imprisonment.
Parenting plans are an incredibly helpful tool for separated or divorced parents as they provide a clear roadmap for raising their children and can help to protect your children’s interests, avoid legal disputes, and encourage efficient communication.
Creating a parenting plan can be a complex and emotional process. Speaking to a legal coach or paralegal navigator can help ensure that you have all the necessary information to create a comprehensive and long-lasting agreement for you and your family. Contact us today to book a free strategy session to get started.