This guide will assist you how to create a legally binding long distance parenting plan. A long distance parenting plan is an arrangement for how you will co-parent a child when one parent is not within close physical proximity. It is one part of a court order.
Why a Parenting Plan?
Parenting is hard, co-parenting is harder, and every layer of complexity you add just makes it tougher. One of the first pieces of advice I give to a new long distance parent is get a parenting plan.
Aside from the emotional and strategic complexities involved in child custody, there is always just the practical reason, that applies whether you’re running a project at work or negotiating a contract to buy a car : Unless it’s agreed upon and written down, in language everyone understands, that is binding to the parties involved, it will not happen. ‘It’ can be anything, but in this case, we mean child support, visitation, health insurance and the multitude of other complexities of raising a child.
Why a legally binding long distance parenting plan?
Generally because it’s enforceable and organizations like schools and social programs will recognize it. A court order is paperwork you get from the court that says that the the court backs your plan to parent your child. A court order gives you the means to enforce the arrangements that the court approved. Sometimes a judge will approve what the parents have agreed upon and sometimes it might need to be adjusted before the judge will agree to make it an order.
If you have a parenting plan that is not part of a court order, even if you have both signed it, in a conflict of any sort, the parent who has physical custody of the child at the time of the dispute will most likely be assumed correct until otherwise clarified with a court order.
A practical worst case example : You, the long distance parent, and your co-parent had a disagreement over visitation dates. You fly across the country to pick your child up for summer vacation visitation but your co-parent refuses. So you call the police. The police will ask for a court order. You show them your agreement. The police will not litigate who signed what and what’s correct according to the pages you have on the spot. Instead, they will depend upon a judge to do that, which means going to court.
Schools will require a court order. Getting support from financial social nets will require a court order. In some cases civil and social organizations won’t even wade in where there is a dispute over a court order. So it’s not 100% but you are far more likely to have support in enforcing your custody and rights if you have a court order.
Table of contents
- Why a Parenting Plan?
- Why a legally binding long distance parenting plan?
- 1. Create a non-legally binding long distance parenting plan
- 2. Discuss and/or Negotiate Your List
- 3. Make your long distance parenting plan legally binding
1. Create a non-legally binding long distance parenting plan
What I mean by creating a non-legally binding parenting plan first, is that before making it legally binding, you basically need to put your parenting plan together. You want to go into court already knowing what you want. The judge won’t help you figure that out. Ideally, you want to have agreement from your co-parent on what goes into it. We will also cover some tips and strategy on getting them engaged if your relationship isn’t great.
Look at some example long distance parenting plans
When I created my long distance parenting plan in ~2001, we were pretty much on our own. Since then, long distance parenting is becoming more and more commonly recognized as a legitimate arrangement by courts. As a result, more long distance parenting plan examples and instructions are available. While many of them provide templates, the process behind deciding what should go into it might not be as intuitive.
List what you Want
Make a list of everything you want. Elaborate on each one with a few sentences of specifics. For instance :
- I should get unsupervised visitation
- I would like the kids about half of the time
- The kids should be able to video chat with me regularly
- I would like them to be with me over the summer and would like to have alternating holidays with them
- I would also like alternating spring and winter breaks to even out how much time I get with them
- My co-parent and myself should split the costs of travel
Here are some specific things to consider in your parenting plan, along with some practical advice on how to go about deciding what to include. Here are some of the travel and child support considerations. And finally, here is some information on what visitation can look like for long distance parents.
List Assumptions and ‘Givens’
If you’re lucky, you and your child’s parent get along great right now – but there could be a time when you don’t. Regardless of you situation, the parenting plan should codify any assumptions. This ensures that your rights will still exist in the heat of an angry moment.
In the case that the custodial parent isn’t feeling very giving, your parenting plan, reinforced by a court order, will ensure that your rights as a parent must still be respected. So, your next step should be to list all of your assumptions or givens that don’t appear on your first list. This would be things like :
- my child will have telephone access to me
- I will be involved in making medical decisions
- All travel arrangements will be agreed to by both parents 30 days in advance. In case they aren’t this happens (whatever ‘this’ is).
More Help with your long distance parenting plan
If you’re still feeling stuck or just want some more planning insight, check out these resources.
- Relocation Realities offers a plain english non-legalese explanation of how to plan for a long distance parenting plan.
- This is a guide for creating a parenting plan, with a section on long distance. It appears to have been written for Arizona but is available through the CA court website.
- NoLo’s Essential Guide to Child Custody and Support – a book from NoLo, which tends to be very plain language legal how-tos
2. Discuss and/or Negotiate Your List
Now that you’ve got the bones, time to flesh it out with your co=parent’s needs. If you are amicable with the other parent, you can discuss it with them directly. If you are not, this step will happen through attorneys or a mediator. This process can happen out of court though and will be much less costly for both of you if you can agree on most things before it goes to court.
The object is to ideally come up with a final joint list of things to include in your parenting plan. Encourage the other parent to make their own list and compare them. Discuss your list (and/or theirs) and make final agreements on each item.
If you are not on great terms with your co-parent or you don’t communicate well, try these tips for smoothing out the relationship with your co-parent into action. Specifically, if your conflict comes from the way you co-parent post split, try these ideas for repairing your relationship. If you just generally need co-parenting relationship advice and help, one of these co-parenting books might help.
In some cases, it will not be possible for you and your co-parent to cooperate. In that case, your prep will include a few extra things as a cya. Take a look at these points of defensive strategy for the road ahead.
Create a Final(ish) Agreement
If you are using an attorney, your attorney will put together a final version for your co-parent to approve. If you are not using an attorney, write a new copy as you go through Step 3.
If you and your co-parent are working on this together, you can use this as an opportunity to create a signed agreement. Each of you should initial each newly written, agreed upon item. When you get to the bottom of the new and improved copy, you both sign it.
It’s important to note that at this stage, although you have a signed and initialed copy of the agreed upon plan – this is not a court order and is NOT a legally binding long distance parenting plan. The value of having it is to have evidence of a good faith agreement. However, if your co-parent decides not to follow this agreement, at this stage, before there is a court order, there is nothing that you can do to enforce this agreement legally.
Having an agreement is a stop gap and a huge hurdle in getting your final court order. If you get it notarized, all the better. But in order to have it be enforceable by child support agencies, police departments, schools etc, it must be a court order.
3. Make your long distance parenting plan legally binding
Jurisdiction and Courthouse
The very first thing you will want to do before going forward is to make sure you know what state has jurisdiction of your case and what courthouse will hear your case. In long distance parenting cases, jurisdiction is not always straight forward and you might be in for a jurisdiction change. Here is some more detailed information on jurisdiction, how to figure it out and how to change it.
Once you know which state has jurisdiction, you’ll know which state laws will apply to your case. Here are some links to the laws of many US states and counties. Once you know which courthouse you’ll be working with, you’ll be able to determine their forms and processes, or find an attorney in that area.
To get an Attorney or Not?
Every situation is different – however, adding long distance parenting into an already complicated custody or divorce can add a whole new layer of potential challenge. Some folks are able to get through it without an attorney – and so that is absolutely a viable option. However, if you are in a contentious situation with a co-parent you don’t get along with, especially if your co-parent has an attorney, seeking help from an attorney might be a good choice.
Whether you decide to lawyer up or not, all of these steps should be part of your own process. In some cases, if there is enough emotional static, having your attorney mediate some of these steps with your co-parent and their attorney might be preferable. In some cases, you and your co-parent may only need attorneys for the final stretch of filing and court appearances.
File with the court
Your attorney will do this, if you have an attorney. If not, look up the courthouse website for guidance on how to find the right forms for your case. Some courts have legal help or workshops for child custody cases. Failing that, many courts have online portals with all of their forms and instructions. When in doubt, reach out to the county clerk at the courthouse to find out what resources or forms are available and how to access them.
Prepare for Court
If you have decided to have an attorney, your attorney will request all of the information and documentation they need from you. They will also walk you through the process. However, if you don’t have an attorney, it might feel daunting to prepare alone. And even if you have an attorney, it’s good to have done some of your own leg work so that you know what’s going on. Although the specifics of exactly what forms you’ll be filling out etc will differ per case, here are some practical ways to organize yourself for your court date.
Get your court order
Once you or your attorney have filed all the appropriate forms, you will get a hearing date. At the hearing date, the judge will talk through the details of your case and will ask any questions they have. The outcome of the hearing could be any number of things, depending upon your specific case. For example, the judge might ask you to go to mediation or the hearing might be postponed to a later date. However, once all appearances are concluded successfully (the judge has everything they need), you will get a court order.
Make sure you get your own copy before you leave the courthouse – or that you have made arrangements to get a copy from the courthouse.