Issues Regarding Parenting Plan Design

The State of Oregon actively encourages parents to involve themselves in the design of a parenting plan for their children in the post-divorce period. Please visit courts.oregon.gov/OJD/OSCA/cpsd/courtimprovement/familylaw/index.page for some suggestions and some model plans. In this opinion piece, I want to share some general principles that enter into parenting plan design during a divorce with a custody and parenting plan dispute. There is really a very limited amount of parenting plan formats to choose from, and every effort is made to recommend a parenting plan that is uniquely suited to a particular family and the characteristics and developmental stages of the children. The concepts that are generally described below would not be relevant to those unusual circumstances where a parent’s time with the children must be severely limited or supervised for one reason or another.

For more normal and common family circumstances, allow me to share some general thoughts on parenting plan design. The proper design of all parenting plans involves a logical blending of three general concepts or areas of information, all of which can be potentially contradictory. First of all, it is well known and well accepted that children in general do best in their development if they experience the stability and predictability of a primary home. A parenting plan based solely on that developmental principle would involve traditional alternating weekends and the marginalization of the non-custodial parent. Many parents enter into a custodial and parenting plan evaluation believing that this body of thought and research is the only one that exists, particularly if they have been a stay-at-home parent.

The second and equally well-accepted concept involves the fact that children in general do best in their development if they have frequent and appropriate contact with both their mother and their father, assuming that both parents are nurturing and reasonably skilled. A parenting plan based solely on this developmental principle would approach or would involve shared equal placement between parental residences. Many parents enter into a custodial and parenting plan evaluation believing that joint custody and/or shared equal placement are the only appropriate circumstances for the post-divorce period.

The third general concept or area of information that needs to be factored in involves the particular characteristics of the family system under consideration. This involves the age of the children, their stages of development, their own preferences if appropriate, the parenting history within the family, the individual adjustment of the children as well as their parents, and a range of practical matters that can include something as simple as the distance between parental homes.

In regard to children’s preferences, it should be noted that one of the “urban myths” that custody evaluators frequently encounter is that children can begin to make these decisions for themselves somewhere around their 12th birthdays. This is not true. A child can make a determination about their living arrangement on the morning of their 18th birthday. What is true is that children begin to demonstrate some abstract reasoning at about age 12, and they start to demonstrate an ability to grasp “the broad picture” of things. Consequently, if they state a preference, it is appropriate to give them a voice, but only at an age appropriate level. An adolescent’s stated preference is given more weight as they approach age 18.

As all three concepts described above are blended in the design of a parenting plan, the design features involve building blocks of repetitive fourteen day periods. A traditional alternating weekend plan can be mathematically labeled a 2-12 plan involving two overnights with the non-custodial parent and twelve with the custodial parent. Shared equal placement, of course, would involve some version of a 7-7 plan. There are only 8 ways to divide the number 14 and most parenting plans will involve or fall somewhere between a 2-12 or a 7-7 format. Generally, when you have two equally skilled parents with nearly identical histories of parental involvement, with similar homes within a short distance from each other, and a good co-parenting relationship, one can err on the side of the 7-7 plans because the child’s sense of stability and security will not be challenged. Psychologically, despite having two physical residences, children under those positive circumstances will still feel somewhat “nested.” On the other hand, in high conflict situations, or in circumstances that involve large discrepancies in parenting style, and a history of other negative pragmatic circumstances, particularly a troubled co-parenting relationship, one must frequently err on the side of stability and security for the child. There are some exceptions to this latter statement, particularly when general therapeutic needs within the family system somewhat trump the need for stability and security. Cases with demonstrable parental alienation behavior are an example.

These design concepts lead to three categories of parenting plan formats. The two most conservative and traditional formats involve alternating weekends with the non-custodial or non-residential parent (2-12 and 3-11 plans). These formats are frequently represented in the county guidelines that are published by the court system. There are two mid-range formats that work wonderfully for many families in that they provide a bit more stability for the children but still provide increased contact with both parents (4-10 and 5-9 plans). In my experience, relatively few families stipulate to 6-8 plans, but that leaves three versions of the most liberal of formats involving shared equal placement (7-7, 2-2-5-5, and 3-4-4-3). Each of these 50-50% plans has some distinct advantages and disadvantages depending upon a particular family’s circumstances.

It is very important for divorcing parents to note that some children are capable of thriving in their development under terms of any one of these parenting plan formats while other children may need to have their circumstances reflected more in the final design. For example, a very young child with some emotional problems may flounder significantly under one of the more liberal plans. On the other hand, a resilient and well-functioning older adolescent may do best under a more liberal arrangement. Neither the Court nor custody evaluators in general have any bias for or against any one of the possible plans. When I have been asked as an evaluator to review parenting plans that have been put together previously by parents or by the Court, I have seen wonderful success stories along the whole continuum of parenting plan formats as well as disasters along the whole continuum. The disasters can usually be fixed relatively easily by applying some of the child-focused design principles described above. Generally speaking, if everyone involved in a custody and parenting plan evaluation remains focused on the welfare and best interest of the involved children, a successful plan almost always emerges.

(Please see ORS107.102 for statutory considerations).

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