Crafting Your Own Parenting Plan

© Vicky Campagna, PhD


          If you and your ex are able to get along well enough to keep the best interests of your children paramount in your minds, you may be able to come up with a parenting plan, either completely on your own or with the guidance of a professional with experience in the subject.  (And it’s very important that anyone who provides guidance on the subject have the appropriate expertise.  It’s highly specialized knowledge!)


          You may be tempted to try and have a loosely-structured plan, one where you and your ex just “go with the flow,” i.e. the kids go with whomever it seems appropriate at the time.  But no matter how well you get along, it is my opinion that such an unstructured approach is likely to fail.  This is true for several reasons:


1)                The children need the stability of knowing where they will be at any given time, and to get into a routine so that their life feels safe and comfortable and predictable once again.  There may be jokes about “if it’s Wednesday, it must be Dad’s house,” but in truth, children take comfort in knowing what to expect.


2)                Parents, too, need to know what the boundaries and expectations are.  Each of you should be able to make your own personal plans without worrying if there will be someone available to take care of the children.  And no one needs the guilt of wondering if they’ve put in “enough” time with their children.


3)         Having an agreed-upon plan in place prevents -- or at least minimizes! – future squabbles about things such as where

Johnny will be for Christmas this year.  Parenting apart is enough of a challenge without adding tension.





Where to Begin


                   The first decision is whether or not you two want to attempt to create a parenting agreement all by yourselves.  A mental health professional with expertise in divorce issues can be invaluable and can be well worth the relatively minimal financial investment, when you consider the havoc and cost that a poorly written and/or incomplete plan can create!  You could also seek out a professional mediator.  Some attorneys are trained in mediation and a very good resource for this kind of legal service is ,

which is the website for the collaborative law movement.  Check the URL for detailed information, but basically, attorneys who follow this approach pledge to help you work through the issues of your divorce fairly and respectfully.  One caution: if you do decide to get legal help to write a parenting plan, be sure you select an attorney who has specific training in mediation, and not one who will resort to litigation at the first bump in the road!


          If, however, you prefer to write the agreement yourselves, I cannot emphasize too strongly how important it is to at least read up on the subject!  There are an infinite number of things you have to consider, each of which could prove vital at some point.  Here are some recommended resources:


v    Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Isolina RicciThis book, now in its 3rd edition, is one of the classics of divorce literature.  Ricci outlines points to consider in fashioning a custody plan and then shows you how to implement it.


v    The state of Arizona has produced a booklet on parenting plans that you can download free: This is a very nuts-and-bolts approach, and does not explore the psychological issues that may underlie the plan’s construction or implementation.  But there are some easily-understood graphics here, that you may wish to use as you map out your own plan.



v    Mimi Lyster’s book, Child Custody: Building Parenting Agreements That Work (Child Custody, 3rd ed), is another classic in its 3rd printing.  Lyster provides some helpful forms for you to tear out and use to organize your plan.


v    The Custody Solutions Sourcebook by Jann Blacktone-Ford (199).   Lowell House Publishers.  Chicago. ISBN 0-7373-0075-2 presents a very clear, step-by-step procedure for designing your plan. Blackstone-Ford also explicitly defines all the various forms custody may take (e.g. joint legal vs. joint physical custody) and offers some novel solutions you may want to consider (like both you and your ex move out, leaving the kids in the family home, and the parents rotate coming to that home to provide custodial care).


v    Dr. Phil Stahl’s book, Parenting After Divorce, (2000) Impact Publishers, Atascadero, cA. ISBN 1-886230-26-9 is written by a very experienced custody evaluator. Although the book’s focus is on how to parent after the divorce, it also contains a succinct few pages on how to design the plan itself.


v    Kids First Parenting Plan  Muklewicz, C. and Grazino, D. (1999) Available at


This book, only 64 pages long, was put together by an attorney/psychologist team.  It’s extremely well done, and presents options, as well as relevant research and commentary by both the lawyer and the shrink.  Each parent needs a copy and should record his/her preferences on the book’s worksheets.  These are then used for negotiation and to craft the plan itself.  There is even a tear-out parenting form where the parents simply circle their choices and then file the document with the court.  It doesn’t get much simpler----IF the 2 parents can negotiate on their own.  It’s also the perfect resource to use together with a neutral expert.  It will help focus (and likely minimize) the amount of time you spend working things out.   And included is a small booklet titled “Taking The Conflict Out of Custody: 7 Awareness Exercises to Stay Focused on the Needs of the Children.”



All of these books concur in the necessity for a parenting plan, and in what ought to be covered in such a document.  Briefly, they say that a complete, well thought-out plan should cover the following areas:


ü     Specify who will provide transportation for the children between each of your houses; many couples find it works best if the receiving parent does the picking up.  Where will the pick-ups be?  If the level of hostility is extreme, you may wish to designate a neutral pick-up point, such as a police station.


ü     What will your decision-making method be?  Most commonly, routine decisions (e.g. what Johnny will take in his lunch box that day) are left to the discretion of whoever has custody at the time.  But you will also need to determine how the major decisions (e.g. should Sally take piano or ballet lessons) will be made, and in fact, how you determine just what is a “major” decision.


ü     Even if you were the most compatible couple in the world (which you’re obviously not, because you’re divorcing!) you’d still disagree about some points of childrearing.  Decide how you will work through those disagreements.  There are many options, including the use of a neutral arbitrator such as a Special Master. (See the article on Special Masters elsewhere on my webpage.)


ü     As the children grow, you will find the parenting plan needs revision to reflect the changing circumstances.  A child who at age 3 could not tolerate being away from either parent for any length of time will likely, at age 10, be ready to go away on a week’s vacation with one of them.  How often will you review your parenting plan, and how will you make changes?


ü     Don’t forget to mention how the children’s’ expenses will be allocated.  Things such as orthodontia, private school tuition, etc. are costly.  Who will pay for them?  Will you require receipts for reimbursement?


ü     How will you handle things if one parent---for reasons you should spell out---cannot take his/her regular parenting time?  If Dad is ill, will Mom let him make up the missed time? If Mom must go out of town, who will care for the children?  Many parents have a “first right of refusal” clause: the other parent has the first right to assume custody if the scheduled parent cannot meet the responsibility.  But be sure to clarify that the scheduled parent has the responsibility for finding appropriate care!


ü     From time to time, information about the children---for example, their grades at school---will need to be shared.  How will you accomplish this?


ü     How will the parenting time be divided between you?  What about holidays? Vacations?  Birthdays?  Be as precise as you possibly can---it will save misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and even battles later on.


  Please be aware that the points above are only some of the major decision points of a parenting plan.  There are in infinite number of smaller areas that must be covered---for instance, will you alternate holidays, or will one of you always have Christmas Day, for instance, and the other always have Christmas Eve?  Do you want to set any geographic limit as to where vacations can take place?  What if one of you wishes to move out of the area?  I cannot stress too strongly the absolute necessity of making your agreement as comprehensive as possible.  In my opinion, the investment of $20 or so for one or more of the above books to insure that you have covered absolutely everything is more than worth the investment.  Note too that many libraries have copies you can borrow.  And even if you take the independent route, you may wish to consider using the services of a mental health professional with expertise in parenting plans to help you navigate the inescapable areas of conflict.


Vicky Campagna, LMFT, PhD
165 Arch St.,
Redwood City CA 94062
Phone: 650-368-8318
Fax: 650-679-9378