When a marriage ends, former spouses with children usually develop a parenting plan together. This includes a schedule for spending time with their children that suits their needs and availability. Parents often will alternate weeks or months with a child, or arrange for the child to live with one parent during weekdays and the other during weekends. If the child lives with just one parent, the plan provides a visitation schedule, which is a list of regular times for the other parent to see the child. The parenting plan also sets up who is responsible for making key decisions involving the child, such as those involving education, religion, and medical treatment.
You can work directly with your former spouse on developing a parenting plan, or you can use a professional mediator if you would prefer. Take all the time that you need to look at documents that might affect your position, such as court orders, previous agreements, or attorney correspondence. Make sure that your needs are met when you negotiate with your former spouse. Once you set a parenting plan, it can be placed in your divorce file and enforced as a court order. This means that you should be sure that you are satisfied with the plan so that you do not have to endure the stress and expense of changing it in the future.
Here are some answers to common questions that parents often have at this crossroads. Remember that every situation is different and that you should consult a lawyer to seek advice regarding your specific case.
What if I can’t agree with my former spouse on a parenting plan?
If parents are unable to agree on a parenting plan or visitation schedule, a court may create a fixed visitation schedule. This sets forth the times and places for a parent who doesn’t live with the child to see the child. If a parent is unhappy with either a parenting plan or a fixed visitation schedule, a parent may ask the court to change it. Visitation orders may also be changed to suit the child's needs as he or she grows older.
Can the court take away my right to see my child?
Only in rare and extreme circumstances. This right will be taken away if the court is convinced that contact with the parent would seriously endanger the child's physical, mental, or emotional health. Most courts prefer that children develop a relationship with both parents, and will structure a parenting plan and visitation schedule to support that goal.
However, a court may impose certain restrictions on your right to see your child. This can happen if a non-custodial parent has a history of violent or abusive behavior, or if the non-custodial parent is suffering from a mental illness. Restrictions might include requiring the presence of a third party while the parent and child are together. It also might include setting specific places and times for the parent and child to meet.
Can other family members see my child too?
Usually. While specific laws vary between states, a court will typically grant this right to a child's grandparent, great-grandparent, or sibling if the court feels that it is in the best interests of the child. A few states do not allow great-grandparents or siblings to have this right, and they may arrange visits for grandparents only if the parents are separated or if one or both of the parents has died.
If a parent feels that visiting a certain relative would harm the child, the parent should let the court know. However, if it would not harm the child, the parent should consider negotiating with the relative outside of court to set up times for them to see the child.
What happens if my former spouse breaks the rules set by our parenting plan?
You can bring it to the attention of the court, and your former spouse may be held in contempt. This means that he or she may be fined or even jailed until the order containing the plan is obeyed. Before taking this step, you should discuss the issue with your former spouse and try to resolve it on your own.
I have not paid child support. Can I still see my child?
In almost all cases, yes.