A wise client recently asked me, "What is the best parenting plan for children?" It was a refreshing question. In my highly contested custody cases, the children's emotional well-being can be lost in the forest of exhibits highlighting a parent's less than desirable behaviors and actions. I wish more parents asked the question, "What is best for my children," and not "What is best for me?"
Therefore, what is the best parenting plan for children? There is no one answer to this question, nor is there one parenting plan that fits all families. However, I can say that the best parenting plan is one that both parents support and considers a varied combination of six factors.
At Sandia Family Law, our custody attorneys can help you develop an ideal parenting plan for your circumstances.
Contact us online or via phone at (505) 544-5126 to schedule a consultation with our team.
Mutual Support Is Key
The support of both parents is the key to the success of the plan. Therefore, I encourage my clients to reach an agreement through mediation, rather than ask the judge to make the timesharing decision for their family. How do you get both parents to support the plan? Through mediation, we go through the factors that influence the children's comfort level and their best interests.
By considering six objective factors, I can generally recommend a certain parenting plan, that in turn, hopefully, parents can ultimately endorse. Those factors are:
- The age of the child;
- The child's relationship with and attachment to each parent;
- The flexibility of each parent's schedule;
- The distance between the parents' homes;
- The fitness of each parent to effectively parent; and
- The ability of the parents to co-parent.
The Child's Age in Your Parenting Plan
First, how old is the child? I like to refer to the Arizona Guide to Parents Living Apart in determining the best plan for various aged children. New Mexico generally follows this guide, and it is both easy to understand and to implement. We provide a copy of this guide to all our clients at the time they retain us. The age of the child is essential. While I support 50/50 timesharing plans, a newborn cannot be put on such a plan. And for obvious reasons, a 50/50 timesharing plan doesn't work for parents who are geographically distant from each other or for families when one parent is unfit.
From birth to the age of one, children are generally best served by living in one primary home while seeing the other parent anywhere from two to three times per week from three to eight hours at a time. However, this plan is generally for families where one parent has been the primary caretaker, and the other parent has spent less time with the child or may have an inflexible schedule. And finally, while this plan may work for newborns to one-year-olds, most families start to allow overnight visitation at the age of one.
This is not to say that an eight-month cannot spend overnights with his non-primary parent, but it may not be the best plan for the baby, and I can state with confidence that a court will not order overnight visits with the non-primary parent.
From there, I generally recommend and advocate for one overnight stay per week, commensurate with the child's age. A one-year-old can spend one night per week with the non-primary parent. A five-year-old can spend up to five nights away from the primary parent, and by the age of seven, I can generally advocate for a seven day on-seven day off timesharing schedule.
Understanding the Parent-Child Relationship
However, we also must examine the child's relationship with and attachment to each parent. A child is probably more attached to a stay-at-home mom in the early years than to his father, who works long hours outside the home. This is not a judgment on either parent's parenting skills or their decisions as people, but the question is one of attachment and what is best for that child. Early on in the separation, I would probably advocate that the child resides primarily with the parent with whom the child is more comfortable. It should be expected this would change over time. If the second parent becomes more available, the child is more attached, and timesharing should increase.
However, it must also be considered that parents often change their work schedules upon the divorce. The mother returns to the workforce, while the father may see the need to work less, now that he is the only parent in his home when the child is with him. The parent must consider this is reaching their parenting agreement, and not rely on past behaviors only. This is where we primarily advocate for fathers. Mothers often argue that the father never took the child to school or the doctor. When the divorce is imminent, roles change, and timesharing should be allocated accordingly.
Scheduling Your Parenting Plan
The flexibility of each parent's work schedule is also an essential factor in reaching a parenting agreement. It may make sense to award a father who is a teacher more timesharing, especially in the summer, than a mother who works a 9-6 job. Again, the timesharing schedule is about what works for the child, not the parents.
How Where You Live Impacts Your Plan
Parents should also consider the distance between each parents' homes in negotiating a timesharing arrangement. A parent who resides a half hour from the child's school probably shouldn't have 50/50 timesharing; however, I have seen parents make use of that travel time to converse with and spend time with the child.
Generally, a judge will not find an hour commute per day for the child is in the child's best interests. When you separate from your spouse, I find it especially important to find housing nearby and even in a similar neighborhood as your former spouse or in the same neighborhood as your child's school.
What Does it Mean to Be a "Fit" Parent?
Each parent's fitness is another factor that must be considered in the development of a workable parenting plan. A child cannot spend fifty percent of her time with a parent who has drug or alcohol problems. That is not to say that parents should not see the child, as I have blogged about before; however, the periods of responsibility should be short and probably supervised.
If the parent can show he or she is sober, then timesharing should be allowed on an unsupervised basis, but if the parent cannot, then supervised visitation is the only option. Familial supervisors or generally preferred as it enables the child to have a more natural timesharing experience. However, in excessive drug or alcohol usage or domestic violence cases, a supervising agency may be the only option.
Considering Your Capabilities as a Co-Parent
Finally, an effective parenting plan must take into consideration both parent's abilities to co-parent. There is no greater disservice you can do to your child than to force your child to witness constant conflict between his parents.
I absolutely cannot recommend 50/50 timesharing to parents who cannot stand each other and who cannot contain their disdain for the other parent. Some classes help teach effective co-parenting In Albuquerque. Healthy Families or Live! Is just one example of such a class.
There are also online co-parenting courses. I describe these classes to my clients as classes that help you get along with a difficult co-parent. I understand you may not like that parent, but you must show your co-parent a level of respect both in the presence of and even outside the company of your child. Only then can you develop a parenting plan that you both support, thereby developing the Best Parenting Plan for your child.
At Sandia Family Law, we'll work with you to develop an effective parenting plan with your co-parent. To schedule a consultation with our team, contact us online or via phone at (505) 544-5126.