One of the most common questions long distance parents ask is what visitation for long distance parents is ‘normal’. How much visitation a long distance parent gets, when it happens and how it happens.
Long distance visitation is more intricate than standard visitation.
- In person visitation is typically longer, with more space in between.
- video visitation is a necessary component.
- Travel and who pays for what when further complicate matters.
Visitation Expenses and Effort
A typical long distance parenting plan includes the travel for the child. Although some long distance parents live a car ride away from their child, many need to fly.
Parents might split the travel expenses between them or one or the other might pay most or all of the travel expenses. In many states, travel expenses can be factored into the child support calculation.
Parents might also split the actual travel. It might be that each parent drives halfway. Or perhaps the parent picking the child up drives or flies that part of the trip.
Flying as an Unaccompanied Minor
“How old does my child have to be to fly unaccompanied” is another common question. It’s not clear cut. Each airline has different rules. Further, even if your child can fly unaccompanied, it might make sense for you to acclimate them to air flight by taking the first trip or two together.
When a child flies unaccompanied, you pay a fee. A parent signs them in and specifies who can pick them up. Then the parent walks them to the gate and waits with them until they board. Airline staff takes them to any connecting flights. The other parent picks them up at the receiving gate with ID and a signature.
This means that both parents must have ID and each must go through security, so leave your shampoo at home!
Accompanying Your Child
If your child is unable to fly unaccompanied, you will need 3 plane tickets.
- One round trip for the parent for the beginning of the trip.
- A second round trip for the child.
- A third round trip for the parent for the end of the trip.
The child’s round trip ticket legs need to be on the same flights with the accompanying parent. They should preferably have neighboring seats as well. You may need to call the airline to arrange this travel.
Scheduling and Planning Visitation
The logistics of how travel arrangements must be made, how the other parent is notified or the decision making power of each parent are all important considerations.
It is unreasonable to expect that the long distance parent can schedule visitation whenever they would like. It is also unreasonable that the custodial parent can negate any visitation they would like.
Spell out visitation times clearly in your court ordered parenting plan. Neither parent is allowed to violate a court order. Language to the effect of “parent 1 makes travel arrangements x days ahead of visitation and notify parent 2” is also common. This ensures that visitation is scheduled ahead of time and that both parents are aware.
If both parents are jointly responsible for transporting the child or for paying the cost of travel, you may be in for more negotiation. When you decide these factors, take your relationship with your co-parent into account.
Even/Odd Visitation Schedule
Things happen. Visitation might need to be adjusted. However, swapping time or substituting holidays quickly becomes complicated and can drastically reduce parenting time in a year. So, instead of language like ‘every other Thanksgiving’, consider an even/odd schedule like this one :
- Fall break : Parent 1 – odd, Parent 2 – even
- Holiday : Parent 1 – even, Parent 2 – odd
In this example, in 2019, Parent 1 would get fall break and Parent 2 would get holiday break. This ensures that even if things get out of whack with one visitation, the court order enforces them getting back on track, without needing to rely on good faith. Many court systems default to this model.
Remember that spring break in an odd year directly follows holiday break in an even year. If you have your child for the holiday break in odd years and then spring break in even years, you see your child for weeks over the course of a few months. But then the following year, you won’t see them at all between the holiday and spring break. Alternate holiday and spring time breaks accordingly.
“Parenting time” is a legal term for the amount of time the child is actually physically present with the parent. Very often, the percentage of parenting time determines the child support amount. Parenting time is calculated based upon your annual even/odd schedule. The number of days each parent gets with the child is added up. Then it’s divided by 365, to get the % of parenting time.
For long distance parents, that the parenting time percentage may be lower than 50%. However, with careful scheduling of parenting time, it’s possible for a long distance parent to come very close to 50%.
Some long distance parents even have a true 50/50 split arrangement. The child moves between homes in alternate weeks, months or years. The viability of this depends upon the age of the child and the distance of the parents.
It is typical for children with a long distance parent to spend the bulk of their summer with the long distance parent. With older kids, this becomes challenging. Your child has friends they want to hang out with and activities they are involved in. Leaving the buffer time described below can help with that.
Use Relative Visitation Dates
Anything school related can change without notice. Every year, school breaks start and end on different dates. When there are too many snow days, schools add days to the school year. They might also add staff days one year after not ever having them. When you child moves to middle school or high school, vacation dates shift again.
If your parenting plan is based around dates, this means that the school schedule interferes with your visitation schedule. Instead, consider using relative time frames rather than dates. For example “One week after summer vacation begins”, is far more consistent than “June 21st”.
Take into account, as well, that your child wants to spend some time with their custodial parent during breaks. As they get older, they want this time with their friends. Having the child stay with the custodial parent for some time during each break helps with this. Consider 2-3 days at the beginning and end of short breaks and 1-2 weeks for summer break. This buffer time also allows time for re-acclimation and prep for school or their time with you.
Ubiquitous mobile devices, kid safety features, and decent data plans have made the cell phone indispensable visitation tools.
Visitation with a child via video chat, aka internet visitation or virtual visitation is a must-have in a long distance parenting plan. Adding this to a parenting plan can be as easy as “parent 1 makes child available to parent 2 via video chat X times per week”.
There is lots involved in buying a phone for a child. But ensure your parenting plan covers who provides and pays for the equipment and monthly charges. It should also cover whether the custodial parent can restrict child’s access to the device and data plan.
Costs During Visitation
Generally, all costs to care for a child is the responsibility of the parent they are with. Parenting time is often the basis of child support. This means that child support amounts reflect how much time you are paying expenses for the care of the child.
However, there are sometimes exceptions in specific court orders. If you are paying something beyond child support, determine how you split those costs when the child is with you.
Get a Court Order for Visitation
Once you’ve figured out the details, it all must be documented in a parenting plan and turned into a court order. But before it can be turned into a court order, you need to have an idea of what the end result should look like.
Time needed: 4 hours.
How to Include Long Distance Visitation in Your Parenting Plan
- Start with a Rough Draft
In your rough draft, include who, what, when, where and how. That means including things like how expenses should be split, and which parent is doing what.
- Consider the current age of the child and work from there
For example, if your child is very young, they might not be able to fly as an unaccompanied minor yet. However, you want your plan to stand the test of time so word it in such a way that fees and logistics involved in both types of travel are included. Update your rough draft to account for this.
- Lay out a two year schedule
This is the 50,000 foot view. What holidays and times each year will your child be with you? Plan out an even/odd schedule for one year. Then pick two specific years like 2020 and 2019 and walk through the annual schedule.
When you step through it for two years, you’ll get an idea of the space between visits. Adjust as required.
- Go step by step through a visit and plan for each detail.
Imagine your child is going to come for visitation. First you plan the visit. You negotiate with your co-parent. Then travel happens. During their visit, what happens? As travel back happens, what happens?
For each step of a visit, make sure who, what, when, where and how are accounted for in your draft. Use the information on this page to include gotchas. Ensure everything is captured in your parenting plan. Who is paying and doing what for each visit? When do things need to happen ahead of, and during a visit? Ensure your rough draft includes these details.
- Follow the process to Make your draft into a legally binding court order
Once you have your draft together, turn it into something that can become legally binding.