Parents are the most important people in their children’s lives, regardless of whether the parents are together or separate. When parents separate or divorce, the most important consideration is the best interests of the children. Custody and parenting disputes can sometimes be highly contentious which only serves to work against the children. Even in relatively peaceful separations, there are disagreements. In all events, it is extremely rare that a Judge will grant full custody to one parent and keep the other parent out of the children’s lives. In the best-case scenario, parents will work together to create a Custody and Parenting Plan that best meets their children’s needs. A Parenting Plan is a written agreement between parents that lays out their rights and responsibilities with regard to the care and support of their children. A comprehensive Parenting Plan is vital to a working relationship between the parents to prevent conflicts in the future.
A Custody and Parenting Plan should cover the day-to-day responsibilities of each parent, the practical considerations of the children’s daily lives, as well as how the parents will agree and consult on long-term issues about their children. What is best for the children is the most important factor when making a Parenting Plan. The following checklist identifies issues to consider when developing a Parenting Plan. These issues are not exhaustive and are simply meant to help guide your thinking and discussions on the topic. Moreover, it is common for Parenting Plans to be changed over time as the children grow older and have different needs. Parents can deviate from most Parenting Plans by agreement; however when there is disagreement the written document must be followed.
1. Classifications of “Custody”?
There are two types of custody: Legal, which is decision making; and Physical, which is where the children live. Parents can share Joint Legal Custody and Joint Physical Custody, or one parent can have Sole Legal and/or Physical Custody. Sole Custody is rarely ordered by the Court except in cases where one parent is unable to care for the children. The overwhelming number of parents in Family Court are awarded Joint Legal and Physical Custody of the children.
2. Where Will the Children Live?
First and foremost, parents must decide on living arrangements for their children. This is referred to as “Physical Custody.” Parents may decide that the children live equally with each parent on an alternating schedule. Parents may also choose to have the children live primarily with one parent and have defined access with the other. Regardless of the arrangement, determining where the children will live is usually the first step in creating a Custody and Parenting Plan.
3. How Will Legal Decisions Be Made?
In most cases, parents will equally share the right and responsibility to make major decisions affecting their children’s lives. These decisions include health, education, and religious upbringing. This is referred to as “Joint Legal Custody.” Under Connecticut law, there is a presumption that Joint Legal Custody is in the best interests of the children. In exceptional circumstances, such as those involving physical or substance abuse, Sole Legal Custody may be awarded. Alternatively, in some limited circumstances, one parent or the other may be granted “final decision-making authority” in a defined area such as education, religion, or healthcare. Even in these cases the other parent’s viewpoints typically must be considered before a final decision is made. Again, this type of division of responsibilities is very rare and typically is the product of a high conflict custody battle.
4. How Much Child Support Is Needed?
Under Connecticut law, child support is calculated using the Connecticut Child Support Guidelines. The Guidelines use the combined income of both parents and the number of children to determine the child support amounts. It is a common misconception that only one parent pays child support. Under the Guidelines, both parents pay a calculated percentage of the total child support. These percentages are in proportion to each parent’s percentage share of the total net income of both parents. The Court may deviate from the Guidelines child support in exceptional circumstances, such as when the parents have equal shared Physical Custody of the children AND substantially similar incomes, or where one parent is contributing significantly more to overall family support.
5. Who Will Provide Health Insurance?
State and federal laws require that children have health insurance coverage. Parents need to decide which parent will carry the children on his/her policy and how the parents will pay the premium attributable to the children. If one parent has better health insurance or can obtain coverage at the least cost, that parent will likely be required to provide coverage for the children. Payments made toward health insurance are considered in calculating child support.
6. Who Will Pay for Work-Related Childcare, Unreimbursed Medical Expenses and Other Needs of the Children?
The Child Support Guidelines calculate the percentage of work-related childcare and unreimbursed medical expenses assigned to each parent. The parents need to decide how they will pay for elective medical expenses for the children, such as orthodontia. The parents further need to decide how they will pay for extra-curricular expenses for the children. Some parents put a cap on these payments, however, children should continue their activities whenever possible.
7. Who Will Provide Transportation to and from School and Other Activities?
Parents need to create a plan for reliably transporting their children where they need to go, including daycare, school, activities, and the like. Parents also need to determine the details regarding the exchanges of the children, including which parent will do pick-ups and drop-offs and where the exchanges will take place.
8. How Will the Children Spend Their Vacations, Holidays and Special Events?
How children will spend their vacations, holidays, and other special events like birthdays, can be a divisive issue between parents. It is important to address this issue to avoid problems when the events occur. Will the children spend certain holidays with one parent every year, or will holidays alternate between parents? Parents should come up with a fair arrangement that considers all holidays, school vacations, summers, and special events such as birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and family celebrations.
9. Who Will Attend School and Extra-Curricular Events?
Parents should decide who will attend parent-teacher conferences and other school and extra-curricular events. If possible, both parents should attend. Otherwise, parents must decide who will attend each event. For example, Mom attends on even-numbered days and Dad attends on odd-numbered days.
10. How Will Parents Communicate With Each Other?
Parents should not communicate with each other through their children. Hopefully, separated parents can communicate directly with each other about their children. If that is not possible, there are several Applications designed specifically for separated parents to communicate about their children, including AppClose and OurFamilyWizard.
11. How Will Parents Communicate With the Children?
Children should have regular communication with the non-access parent. This communication should be liberal and private, provided the child is old enough to manage a phone or electronic device, and without interruption by the access parent.
12. Who Will Claim the Children for Tax Purposes?
This differs case by case, depending upon financial and custody circumstances. In some cases, the parent with primary physical custody will claim the children each year. However, if the other parent is paying child support, many people alternate claiming the children for taxes. There are other arrangements such as one parent claiming one child every year, and the other parent claiming another child every year. If there is an even number of children being claimed for tax purposes, this works easily. If there is an odd number of children being claimed, the parents can each claim a designated child/children and alternate claiming the remaining child. When parents alternate claiming a child, one parent claims the child in even-numbered tax years and the other parent claims the child in odd-numbered tax years. It is important to agree on tax issues to avoid problems with the IRS later on.
13. What about College?
In Connecticut, there is a statute governing the extent to which the Court can enter Orders requiring parents to pay for college education. Unless there is a college-age child at the date of divorce, most parents request the Court to “retain jurisdiction” regarding payment for college education. This means that parents have the option to return to Court to resolve college payment issues, but only IF there are such issues. In most cases, parents decide between themselves and the college-bound child as to how payment will be covered. The Connecticut statute limits the amount a Judge can order parents to pay for college to the cost for tuition, room, and board for an in-state resident at the University of Connecticut. If you and your former spouse have been contributing to a college fund for your children, you need to determine how that will continue. Parents may decide to continue contributing jointly to a college savings plan or trust fund, or both parents may decide to start a college savings account on their own and, perhaps, require minimum contributions by each parent to his/her account.
14. What Happens If One Parent Must Relocate?
Parents should discuss what to do if one parent needs to relocate a significant distance from the other parent. Most parents agree to require reasonable notice of any such relocation and on what to do until the Parenting Plan can be revised to accommodate the relocation.
15. How Will Future Conflicts Be Resolved?
No matter how well parents plan for the future, they simply cannot anticipate every contingency. Since even the most cooperative parents will not always agree, it is important to have a plan in place for resolving future disputes. Parents should consider deciding upon a mediator they can use whenever a serious conflict arises.
HELPING YOU DESIGN THE CUSTODY AND PARENTING PLAN THAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU
In Connecticut, parents involved in any child custody dispute are required to file a Parenting Plan with the Court. In addition to the issues listed above, Connecticut Parenting Plans must address the following: How to handle any future situation in which a parent fails to honor their parental obligations and how that will be resolved; how to address the changing needs of the children as they grow and mature; and how to minimize the children’s exposure to harmful parental conflict. If the court finds that the Agreement is in the best interests of the children, it will enter Orders based on the Agreement.
At McConnell Family Law Group, we help parents work with each other to create a Parenting Plan that is in the best interests of your children. Through mediation, collaboration, or litigation, if necessary, our knowledgeable Connecticut family law attorneys will be your advocates and help you through difficult situations.