There is one piece of advice for new long distance parents that I consider to be the most important. Get a court order before you move and make your parenting plan EXACTLY what you want. Even if your relationship with your co-parent is great and you can both envision the healthiest co-parenting arrangement. Hope for the best – but plan for the worst.
It may sound pessimistic, but it’s about being pragmatic. When you got married, you didn’t think you would get divorced. That’s because we don’t see the worst case scenarios when things are good. If things are great with your co-parent, it could similarly be tempting to see only a rosy outcome.
Co-parenting relationships can turn upside down for a number of reasons. Here are the top reasons things can go south, in my experience :
- Family and friends of your co-parent don’t understand long distance parenting, so they believe and perpetuate the stigma. They don’t have all the facts, because they have distance from the situation. However, they have influence over your co-parent. Their influence, without being grounded in fact, plus their feelings, can upend even the best co-parenting arrangement.
- Your co-parent, now a full time parent, feels resentment or frustration. They might feel like you abandoned them. Everything you get/do feels like a concession or liberty to them. Likewise, everything they have to do feels like an insult. Frustration and resentment can grow over time.
- Your co-parent has a new partner. The partner wants to feel involved in the child’s life. They want their place in their family to feel secure. In an effort to appease the partner, your co-parent might make decisions that harm your co-parenting relationship.
- Poor communication. A good portion of the contents of this website centers around resolving communication issues between co-parents. Poor communication is easily the biggest reason things don’t go well in a long distance co-parenting relationship. One small miscommunication piled on top of another, and before you know it, it’s difficult to tell where things went wrong.
All of that said, completely amicable long distance co-parent relationships do happen. Not all long distance co-parenting relationships go bad. Generally, relationships that go well do so as a result of a lot of hard work on both sides. In my experience in the long distance parenting community, these cases are in the minority. And so, my advice to new long distance parents is always to get a court order before you move, and make it exactly what you want.
My son’s father and I split quite peacefully. Though we both experienced pain and hurt from the breakup, we remained friends. We talked a lot about our ideal co-parenting arrangement. My co-parent and I wanted our son to always have both parents and we wanted to cooperate and co-parent. We had a verbal agreement and then went to an attorney to get it in writing.
When we went to the attorney, I think it’s fair to say that it felt like a stretch to both of us to go through all of that. We did it because dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in writing, just seemed like a good, responsible idea. Weeks went by and each time I would call to check with the attorney, the attorney hadn’t filed the agreement. In the mean time, I’m preparing to move. Later I would learn that the attorney, a co-parent family friend, likely did a favor for that family member by not filing the paperwork.
Then my co-parent’s significant other got involved. Suddenly, my son’s father decided he wouldn’t send my son to live with me, as we had agreed. My co-parent filed for divorce and sole custody on the grounds of abandonment.
After a lot of legal back and forth, we got a court order and parenting plan in place. My son’s father did not get sole custody and I did get virtual visitation and in person visitation. However, I fought tooth and nail to get things into the parenting plan that only months prior, he had ASSURED me he thought were in the best interest of our son. I was on the back foot, having already moved, in a time when long distance parenting plans were not a thing.
I lost friends, I lost my co-parent’s family, and I lost track of all of the names and accusations slung at me. But after the fact, I was eternally grateful that I fought so hard to get everything included. Later, once everything was in writing, there were several times that he tried to restrict my visitation and I needed to fall back on the legal document we signed. My son would tell me things that they talked about regarding me and thankfully, my court order was specific in disallowing that. Being relentless paid off in the form of a relationship with my child. Having consistent access to him and having regular visitation was critical.
For what it’s worth, my co-parent and I are friends again. It would take many years to heal the relationship. In my case, all 4 of the possibilities I listed above were at play. Eventually, those things were less of an issue.
How You can Learn from My Mistake
This is my number one piece of advice for new long distance parents because my story is not an isolated one, unfortunately. It’s so very similar to the stories of many long distance parents. Many start out co-parenting amicably, with no indication that it might go otherwise. Then they move, or the co-parent partners and everything changes. Whatever the reason, the non-custodial parent has little to no recourse if there was never a court order.
Getting a favorable court order after you move is doubly as difficult as getting one before you move. Thankfully, most states have laws that support long distance parenting now. However, you may need to overcome claims of abandonment, whether it was actually abandonment or not. You may also need to overcome the stigma, in a courtroom, with your relationship with your child on the line.
So, my best advice for long distance parents : Before you move, even if everything is wonderful between you and your co-parent, get your parenting plan together and get a court order.
Two Easy(ish) Steps
Here’s how to do it :
- Decide on the things that you would want to make sure you could have. Try to imagine everything you might want or need if your ex decides they hate you and you get ONLY what is in this parenting plan. Ample unsupervised visitation, open phone, mail and email access to the kids, a steady child support amount and say in their education and medical decisions would be a great start. What schedule works for you both for visitation? What about non-school time visitation? Who will pay for college or the first car? What if one parent wants to move more than 100 miles away – or out of state? What if they move an abusive person into the home?
- Go to court and get a court order. Even if you put all of the above in writing and agree upon it, unless it’s a court order, it’s not legally binding. Schools and law enforcement don’t have to respect it and you have no legal recourse if it’s broken, other than to go to court and get a court order.