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How to Create a Legally Binding Long Distance Parenting Plan

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.  

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Debra Poulsen

    It’s comforting to know i am not the only parent dealing with long distance parenting. My daughter is 14, and recently moved to Ohio with her dad to live with his relatives. I live in California. I am already a survivor of Parent alienation syndrome. Having my daughter living so far away, I am finding it so hard just to get through the day. I miss our weekly visits, hugging her, brushing her hair, and looking into her eyes.( to name a few things). I hope to build a life without her nearby that is happy ( I don’t have the money to move ) But for now, my heart is breaking.

    1. Dea Anderson

      I’m so sorry, Debra. I hope your relationship improves. We just have to keep trying and keep trying to get their attention and gain their trust. Going thru same here.

  2. Cara henegar

    Can a judge tell you you can’t move out of state even if the other parent is already the primary parent?

  3. Lola hove

    Hello and Happy New Year to all
    This holiday season was extremely hard on me. All family members are deceased and husband a few years back. My child and I discussed her leaving our town for a better education, which she has done. She attends a community college. So proud and thankful she has a good head on her shoulders. Our family dog passed away this December of old age and the grieving is so profound. I miss my daughter so much. I know it will be better and wish everyone who is going through hard times to feel and love with all your heart because life is good and short. God Bless all

  4. Laura Richardson

    Hi my name is Laura I really need some help lve in PA my ex and two teenage daughters live in Florida. They live with him and I am suppose to have visitation that are agreed upon tems and conditions that were agreed upon by us that never happened. He got remarried and is current wife things that she has control and tells me that I’m not allowed to talk to or see my grls and she tells them the same. Sh has told me that I need to give up my parental rights because haven’t paid child support I am in the middle of a SSI csse she has also told me that she s on all the paperwork for my girls which as far as I know is illegal because I am the parent and my ex and I have shared parental responsibility which means we both have full rights . He refuses to tlk to me he makes her tell me everything and she is the one who threatens me. They are both abusing y girls my odest has stabbed herself with a pen my youngest self hrms heself and they are also being abused emotionally and verbaly it’s very disturbing the way my girl are Beng treated and am extremely worried about them I don’t know where or who to talk to I can’t afford an attorney I’ve contacted legal aid in Fla thy aren’t very much help and thy are not very encouraging at all I contacted wh I needed to down there about my girls they told me they can’t do anything because the girls ont talk and because they have no proof of anything that I said ( even though I sent her voies of messages from my girls that were sent o me ad to frend of what was going on ).Can someone please help me I am very worried about my children I have no idea what goes on down there I am told nothing even though he supposed to inform me of everything and I am also to have telephonic communication with them at all times that doesn’t happen either. I just fee like if I file a motion for modification for visitation and timesharing I’m wasting my time because I have not seen them in 5 years and that hat wasn my fault it’s hard being up here and my girls in Fla. I really want custody of them because of what is going on in that house but I know that the judge will rule fr what’s best for my girls but in my heart where they are is not what’s best for them they are not safe. I love my girls I want what’s best for them and I truly believe it’s up here in PA with me. I just need someone who thinks the same thing as is willing to help me fight for them. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to write out this whole story just needed to hopefully maybe gets some good news about what I can do the two of them are totally alnating my children from me and me from them there has to be something I can o SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME GET MY GIRLS .Thankyou, Laura

    1. Marci

      Hi Laura, there are quite a few things you can do… You can contact the department of family and children services and report abuse they will then open a case and investigate the home. Also it is illegal for the custodial parent to deny the other parent phone time that means that your ex-husband is supposed to allow you to speak to your children and you’re supposed to have unmonitored and unsupervised phone conversations that being said. He is keeping the children from you. Are you aware of his address? Do you know physically where your children live? If not you can contact the police department and file a missing children’s case they should be able to locate your children and provide you with information such as where they attend school they can also temporarily take the children into their custody while everything is sorted out. Although you are behind on child support you still have rights to your children also you should contact the local child support office where you are supposed to make your child support payments explain to them that you are in the process of going through Social Security and don’t have the money to make payments and notify them that your ex husband is hiding the children from you and that his wife has been calling you and making threats and that they’re not allowing you to speak to your children and you are worried for their safety. This will make it mandatory for him to allow you phone time and if they feel the children are being abused when they interview and question but children they may even place temporary physical custody with you. Good luck with everything.

    2. Denise Schellenberg

      I hope u got the help you needed and things are better for you now.

  5. Ashli

    In February of 2014 my current husband and I moved from Michigan to California so that my ex husband could live with his girlfriend. At the time My ex husband and I shared custody of our two-year-old daughter and I felt she was too young to be flying back-and-forth multiple times a year or be away from either of us for any significant amount of time. So we made the move…
    Fast forward to present time, my husband and I have had 3 additional children with another one on the way. Two of our children suffer from health issues (involving heart issues, skin conditions and asthma issues) mostly related to where we live (the dry air and harvesting). They need to be somewhere the air is more moist so that their lungs are not working so hard all the time. It has also become financially very difficult to continue living here. However, anytime we try to relocate to another area my ex husband drags us back to court and gives us a hard time about it (about everything really). Our current visitation schedule for our NOW 8 year old is week over week.
    My husband and I would like to relocate back to Michigan because the humidity in the air is better for the kids lungs and skin, we have a ton of family that lives there, one of the best pediatric cardiologist is there and my husband can get a good steady job within a family owned business.
    I have offered my ex husband to do a 3 month/3 month split with our daughter. I suggested home schooling or an online face-to-face schooling so that whers ever she is, is not an issue. I also told him that I would waive child support which he currently pays over $500 a month for and he could claim her every year on his taxes. We would split the cost of her flights, and I also told him that we would work it out to make sure that she was with him for the holiday months.
    He has not yet given me an answer yet, but knowing him, he will not agree.
    My questions are:
    1) Am I being unreasonable?
    2) If I have to take him back to court what are my chances of actually getting what I am offering him?

    Because we don’t have a choice for the sake of our other kids health, I’m afraid im going to have to give in on a summer, winter break schedule and go from seeing her every other week to a couple times a year… it’s so hard.

    1. Carrie

      It sounds reasonable. As for the chances of getting that in court, it kind of depends upon how well you can make the case for it, I think. California is not a stranger to long distance parenting but any judge will want to see a really compelling case for a move-away. It has to be more than your word on the air quality and lung issue etc. Have you considered consulting with an attorney to build the case?

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