Family Law Custody Agreements Made Outside Court

by Heather Frances J.D. Google
Designing your own custody agreement might be more convenient than letting the court decide.

Designing your own custody agreement might be more convenient than letting the court decide.

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When you divorce, the court has authority to order a custody arrangement for your family, but you and your spouse can design your own parenting plan for the court to consider. State laws govern divorce and all issues pertaining to divorce, including child custody and support, so laws can vary from state to state. In many states, custody and the amount of time a child spends with each parent is factored into the calculation for child support.

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Courts typically encourage parents to reach their own custody agreements. When you reach agreement, you save time in court and a customized plan is often better for your family than a court-determined schedule. You can reach an agreement without assistance or use a mediator or attorney to help you negotiate with your spouse. Some states have mediation programs ordered by the court to help you reach an agreement.

Drafting an Agreement

If you draft your own custody agreement, it can address any important issues that might arise. In addition to outlining your child’s living arrangements and visitation time, it can discuss other topics such as holiday and vacation schedules and what happens if one parent wants to move away from the area. It can also state whether both parents have a say in major decisions for your child, such as where he will go to school, whether he will attend religious services and what medical care he may receive.

Court Approval

Before your agreement can have any legal effect, the court must approve it. When you present your plan to the court, the judge will consider whether it is in the best interests of your child. If it appears so, the judge will likely incorporate your agreement into the final divorce decree. Once this happens, the agreement becomes a court order and is enforceable just like any other court order. If one parent fails to abide by the order, the other spouse can file contempt charges with the court.


Circumstances often change after the court issues the original custody order or divorce decree, so courts maintain authority to modify the order. Depending on state law, the court may require a showing that your circumstances have changed significantly before it can modify the order. To obtain a modification, you or your ex-spouse can file a motion with the court. The motion must be properly served on the other parent. Typically, the court will approve the modification if you and your ex-spouse agree on it. If not, the court may schedule a hearing to hear arguments from both sides before issuing a decision.