For children, separation and divorce mean the end of life as they know it -- and the mental health of your children may depend on how stable their situation is throughout and after the divorce process. With the stakes so high, it's important to have a complete parenting plan that provides for their present and future financial needs, and preserves a healthy relationship with both parents.
A parenting plan is a document required by most courts as part of the final divorce order in cases where the couple has minor children. It governs the relationship between the parents in regards to the children. It can address issues related to the children's healthcare, education and physical and emotional well beings. It typically must include a time-sharing schedule. Most of the time, parents negotiate the points on which they don't agree until they reach a single agreement to present to the court. If the spouses can't agree, the judge will decide all the unresolved issues according to what is in the best interest of the children.
Residential versus Legal Custody
The parenting plan often establishes both residential and legal custody of the children. Residential custody, also known as physical custody, is where the children will live most of the time. It establishes their permanent address for school records and official documents. Legal custody is the right to make important life decisions for the children, such as religious, educational and medical decisions. Often only one parent has residential custody, but the parents share legal custody equally. The parents may determine residential custody based on which parent lives closer to school or relatives, which parent works less and has more time for the children, or which parent has the closest relationship with the children. Parents often agree to joint legal custody because they both want equal say in their children's lives. However, if the court has to order one or both types of custody, the primary determination is always what's in the children's best interests.
The parents, or the court, decide how the children's time will be divided between the parents. Standard visitation schedules generally require every other weekend and one evening per week be spent with the non-residential parent, with holidays rotated between the parents and vacations split between the two. However, the parents can agree to modify this arrangement, or the court can order a modification, taking into account the parents' work schedules, the distance between the parents' homes and the schedules of all the children. Any history of violence or abuse in the home can affect time sharing, as the non-residential parent may require supervision when he visits with his children.
States use formulas to calculate a minimum child support amount. For example, the Florida child support calculation takes into account both parents' income and other assets, the costs of health and child care, and the cost of standard needs based on the children's ages. Parents can agree to, or request, additional support for various reasons such as so a child can attend a private school. If one or both parents' situations change during the course of the children's minority, parents can ask the court to raise or lower the support amount previously ordered, based on a substantial change in circumstances, such as unexpected unemployment, a substantial raise in salary, or a disability.