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The Complete Guide to Planning for Long Distance Parents

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  • Post last modified:January 6, 2021

With a new year often comes new years resolutions that will be history in a few months. What won’t be history in a few months is the grind of real life and the need to juggle long distance parenting concerns as well. The new year is an opportune time for planning for long distance parents.

I will preface this post by saying I’m a project manager, by trade and by lifestyle. Planning is my jam. I live and die by planning (but clearly have mostly lived). I can plan anything. It’s what I do. I have plans for planning and plans for contingencies and can readily produce a written plan for almost everything in my life. I’m a planner.

If that makes you die a little inside, rejoice! No really! I’m going to lay out exactly how to do it. You don’t have to figure it out. Whether you’re doing this at the new year or some other time, running through this once a year is enough to give you sanity for the year.

I prefer to do it in this order : calendaring, visitation planning and then budgeting. I do it in that order because as I go through one process, it generates things for the others. Taxes, of course just need to be done this time of year. So first, taxes!

Taxes

It always seems like we have plenty of time to get our taxes done. Just fill out a few forms, click some buttons and done. However, we all know that the reality can be different. For long distance parents, taxes can be complicated. Some long distance parents alternate years they can claim the child with their co-parent. Some get to claim the child every year. And some long distance parents don’t get to claim the child. Review your long distance parenting plan for the details of your arrangement.

If you need a signed form 8332 and don’t have it already, get that signed. It is often helpful to get then signed far in advance, before the tax time crunch. You can conceivably get several signed at once. The current revision was published in 2018.

It is possible for a long distance parent to claim the child without a form 8332. However, if your co-parent also claims the child that year, not only will it delay both of your returns while the IRS sorts through it, ultimately, your co-parent will win the exemption. The IRS will not look at your court order. They will only look at the form 8332.

As long as your co-parent and you are on the same page about who is claiming your child, and there is no risk of them going rogue, you might be fine. If you have any doubt, get them to sign a form 8332. If you will need this going forward, add reminders to your calendar.

Claiming Child Care as a long distance parent

Even if child care was while the child was in your co-parent’s home, if you paid any of those expenses, you can deduct it. It is always cleaner to pay your share of child care directly to the child care facility so that you have receipts for your share. However, if worse comes to worse, having a money trail of what you sent, how much and when, along with statements from the child care facility should cut it.

If you don’t have statements from the child care facility, call them and request an annual account balance statement. They can generally produce a few-pager that has payments and charges. For smaller mom and pop shops, you might need to work with them on it.

I am not a tax professional. If in doubt, please seek the advice of a tax professional.

Calendaring for long distance parents

Everyone has their preferred method of calendaring. Recently, it’s seemed that bullet journals are the hot stuff. My go-to is google calendars. My calendar is available on my mobile and desktop devices. I get reminders and can share events. I can also delete something without an unsightly scratch-out in an otherwise beautiful page! (my perfectionist is showing)

Google calendars also allows you to create shared calendars, which can be helpful for joint planning with your co-parent. You can also share your own availability without sharing details, which can also be helpful in co-parent coordination. One thing that is helpful for me is to have work and personal events all show up in one view, even though they are on separate calendars. This helps me avoid the inevitable work/life clash, otherwise.

When you set up an appointment on google calendar, it will auto-set a reminder. On some of these events, I like different/several reminders so I’ve indicated that below. A visual reminder can be added to paper calendars ahead of the event. Add these to your calendar now :

  • dates you will purchase and plan for visitation (you will do your high level planning now but will detail it out when the date is closer)
    • I like a 2 week reminder, 1 week and 1 day
  • dates actual visitation is happening
    • I like a 2 week reminder, 1 week and 1 day
  • virtual visitation schedule, if you have a set one
    • If weekly, I like a reminder a day before. If more often, 2 hours before
  • school related dates (exhaustive list here)
    • Reminder will depend upon importance and size of event and my lift for the event
  • check-ins with your co-parent, if you have those
    • If weekly, I like a reminder a day before. If more often, 2 hours before
  • court related dates
    • 1 month, 2 weeks, 1 week, 2 days, 1 day, 2 hours. Usually, I have quite a bit of prep for these.
  • Your monthly planning and check-in session for yourself

With your calendar in hand, you now know what visitation and virtual visitation you need to plan and budget for.

Long distance and virtual visitation planning

Planning for long distance parents has to include planning for visitation. Sometimes that visitation involves travel in which tickets need to be purchased ahead of time. However, sometimes it’s virtual visitation, which, with a little bit of planning, can go to the next level.

Virtual Visitation and Relationship Maintenance

Wherever you are on your long distance parenting journey, this is an ideal time to take stock of your relationship with your child and consider what that means in the upcoming year. They have gotten older, your relationship and maybe circumstances have changed. What needs to change in the way you interact? Are there things like letter writing that you’d like to resolve to do more of? Have your interactions gotten into a rut? Are you feeling like you need to generate some togetherness?

One of the things I love in Ted Rose’s Distance Contact Bible, is the idea of keeping a ‘prop box’. Now is a great time to stock that physical prop box – or plan for your mental prop box for virtual visitation. Although every virtual visitation doesn’t need some new inventive thing, it’s great to have a few in your back pocket. Maybe this year you’d like to try the geocaching idea and you’ve never done that. Or maybe it’s a good time to find some new books to read aloud. Consult your big list of ideas and pick some out that are shiny to you. Don’t have a big list of ideas yet? Consider these ideas for creating togetherness and grab the Distance Contact Bible!

In person Visitation

Go through your calendar and figure out what in-person visitation you need to plan for. At this high level planning stage, I typically create a onenote or evernote page for a travel event and brainstorm there or create lists, add links to stuff I want to do. You added a date to your calendar to buy tickets and plan. That’s the date you’ll add the details. So for now, brainstorm. You create a page in whatever form works best for you. Even if that is a bullet journal (grumble).

When you get that precious time with your kids, you really want to spend it building your relationship. That doesn’t mean you need to take off work the whole time. Sometimes real life just needs to happen and you get your time with them on weekends and evenings. Its worth putting some forethought into how best to spend that time. For some inspiration, check out the list of experiences that build memories here. Because you are planning in advance, you have the opportunity to plan around local events and seasonal activities. Although city calendars might not be up a year ahead of time, you can always check out the previous year to get an idea of repeating events.

It’s worth mentioning here that long distance parents sometimes fear doing fun stuff with their kids because they think that will make them the Disneyland Parent. The negative stigma related to the Disneyland parent is more around failing to discipline your child while they are with you… being all fun and no parent. You only get a small amount of in person time with your kids. Be a parent and also plan to use that time to it’s fullest!

Take any expenses related to your visitation and stub them into the right months of your budget next.

Financial Planning for long distance parents

Life is expensive. Life with kids is more expensive – and life with kids, when you live long distance from them, is even more so. Planning ahead for expenses is imperative to the success of your long distance visitation schedule.

Splitting expenses with your co-parent

If you haven’t already, check out the expense split worksheet. If you are splitting expenses between yourself, your co-parent and your child (or yourself and two other adults), try this three person expense split spreadsheet. Getting everybody on the same page about who is paying what is critical to one’s sanity. The great thing about it is, even though ideally, it’s a group effort, they don’t even have to participate in it. You can use it by yourself to track everything. I can almost guarantee that even with the most begrudging co-parent, if this is kept accurate and up to date, they will start referencing it. At the very least though, you will have your ducks in a row.

Budgeting

There are lots of budgeting tools out there but I personally prefer google sheets. Many budgeting tools auto-create a budget or allow you to create a budget based upon categories and I need the nitty gritty details.

My annual budget is a google sheet workbook with a tab for each month. On each month tab, I have a few columns for each week. Paychecks and expenses are stubbed into the weeks that I get/pay them. At the beginning of each year, I make sure each monthly expense is accounted for and decide when and with what money I’m paying each thing with.

What to Include in Your Budget

Planning for long distance parents means budgeting things that are specific to your parenting arrangement.

  • You’ve hopefully got a calendar and a plan for visitation (above). Now it’s just down to the numbers. Budget the cost for the flight when you will actually buy the tickets and the cost for the lodging and activities for when you’ll actually use them. That can be months apart.
  • Reimbursements from your co-parent should be budgeted very generally. My experience is that it’s best not to count on being reimbursed, if you can swing it. Your co-parent’s finances are not your responsibility and you have no control over them. If they lose their job, for instance, you still want to see your child, so visitation still has to happen, reimbursement or not. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be held accountable for reimbursements. However, in a paycheck to paycheck situation, depending upon that reimbursement to pay a critical bill could be a recipe for disaster. Stub them in a month or two after you are expecting them.
  • If your child support is deducted from your check, make sure your budgeted income reflects that. If you are paying it manually, budget it from the check before it’s due to make sure you pay on time. Noting payment details like check number or a link to the paypal receipt can be helpful for reference later.
  • Consider a slush fund. Tucking away $50 a month for unexpected expenses related to your child can add up to some peace of mind when you need to do something special or when emergencies come up.
  • Don’t forget to budget for school expenses! At the beginning of the school year, get organized for it and you’ll know what’s coming.
  • Think forward to court dates. If you know you will be taking something to court, budgeting early, in small increments can make those fees much more tolerable. If your co-parent is litigious, keeping a court slush fund might also be a good idea.

Planning for Long Distance Parents = Sanity

Although this can sound like a lot, it’s a once a year thing. One and done for the year. It might take a few hours, maybe even a day. But later this year, when you get an automated reminder to buy the plane ticket or when an expense comes up and you find you’d already planned for it, the relief will pay off in spades. You are spending these hours on sanity and will thank yourself repeatedly later.

How do you organize yourself as a long distance parent? Tell me in the comments!

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