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.
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.
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.
Jurisdiction and States
The laws of every state (and country) are different. We have a pretty solid starting point for the laws of many US states and counties and here are some of the intricacies involved in jurisdiction.
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.
If you Decide to Go It Alone
Once you know what state the case would happen in, you will need to find the right forms and fill them out in the right way. Some courts have legal help or workshops for child custody cases. Many courts have online portals with all of their forms and instructions. Failing that, you can generally get very detailed written instructions for each required form.
- figure out what family court district the case would be heard in
- find the resources, forms and instructions for the court district you are in, which, worst case, a clerk at the courthouse can help you find.
Plan Your Long Distance Parenting Plan
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.
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 30 days in advance
Create a Non-Legally Binding Parenting Plan
Discuss and/or Negotiate Your List
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. To do so, you might try the following
- 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.
- Put your emotions aside for the duration and maintain a logical approach to what otherwise can be a difficult emotional conversation.
- Put these tips for smoothing out the relationship with your co-parent into action.
- 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
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. 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. It’s evidence of a good faith agreement. 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.
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.
Make your long distance parenting plan Legally Binding
The crux of the purpose of this post is how to create a legally binding long distance parenting plan. So often, I hear stories of long distance parents who had an agreement with their co-parent, they moved and then the co-parent completely went back on the agreement. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done in those cases other than fight it out in court from your new position, which is decidedly less than ideal. Without this final step, your parenting plan is not legally binding.
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 an attorney, your attorney will do all of these processes for you. If not, never fear! There are often self help resources in your local court to help you file a family court case to get a custody and visitation order. Take a look through the legal resources section of this site to get a jump on what you’ll need to do in your state. It also includes a few samples, templates and examples.
The result of this final step should be a final 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.