Written by Cherie Morris, JD, Parent Coordinator and Divorce Coach
So, you’re getting a divorce. You’ve likely contemplated an array of important decisions. It’s essential to be informed about the choices you make during this life transition, even if the divorce isn’t your first choice. To accomplish this, you can consult a legal professional, a financial expert, a divorce coach and parent coordinator, and a therapist too. In addition, you might review primary sources like case law, or secondary resources like what you’ll find here on it’s over easy, which cover many of categories that you’ll most likely be thinking about as you face divorce. If your goal is to save time, money and create the best life going forward for you and your kids, doing your homework is critically important.
One important aspect of your divorce is how your kids will spend time with you and your co-parent. This requires, in many jurisdictions, that a Parenting Plan be part of the Divorce Agreement. In other jurisdictions, there is no formal requirement, but it is one of the most important elements of your divorce as it involves your child(ren)’s well-being. Your offspring had both of you before the divorce and you should think rationally about what’s best for them and what is possible for you post-divorce.
Divorce through a Child’s Eyes
If you have current conflict, based on the divorce, it can be difficult to think clearly about how this looks to your children. It’s a critical mistake, however, not to do so. It’s clear most kids, and most parents, benefit from some form of shared custody. That’s worth repeating: Kids thrive when they spend time with and are cared for by both of their parents, even when both parents live apart after a divorce. It’s not the divorce that hurts kids but the conflict between their parents. https://www.divorcemag.com/blog/child-parent-relationship-after-high-conflict-divorce/
So, in addition to sharing parenting time, it’s important to manage the entire process from scheduling to drop-offs and pick-ups so that your children do not feel the conflict that may exist between you and your ex.
Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody
When we talk about custody, it’s important to remember there are two types: physical custody and legal custody. In general, physical custody refers to the location of the child on the various days of the week; legal custody refers to refers to the responsibilities of making major decisions that affect the child's welfare, including decisions regarding the health, education and religious upbringing of the child. When thinking about a schedule for the kids, you should decide whether you will share physical custody 50/50 or whether there is another shared percentage, per parent, that works for both of you. It is true that 50/50 physical custody is more common now than a decade ago, it may not be the right schedule for you and your co-parent. The percentage of time you have the child may impact the child support you receive or pay.
Parenting Time (A.K.A. Visitation Schedule) Considerations:
- The age(s) of your child(ren):
- Infants and Toddlers: Generally, this age requires more frequent transitions to maintain a relationship with both parents as primary caregivers if that is your goal. An important consideration is whether one parent is breastfeeding or is not working outside of the home to care for the child.
- Young children: It’s a good idea to have a consistent routine for young children as they rely on stability and regularity. They are often “fact based” at this age and can, often, adapt to more frequent transitions as long as they understand where they will be and when. They need contact with both parents too and more frequent transitions can help maintain that connection.
- Tweens and Teens: Often, at this age, a child has more to manage outside the home, including schoolwork, friendships, sports and extracurricular activities. This means it is often preferable to have a schedule that allows the child to stay for a longer period of time in one household to minimize disruption to their schedule and allow them to “settle in” one home for a period of time. In addition, and based on feedback from families I work with, as kids get older, they want more information. Don’t drag them into the negotiations but do inform them of changes that impact their lives. If the schedule is modified for travel or any other reason, let the child(ren) know. It helps them feel more in control of something they do not ultimately decide and builds trust into a system that asks for their heightened cooperation and organizational skills. For teens, the resilience they can develop is invaluable.
- The level of cooperation you and your co-parent can manage: If your relationship with your co-parent is already good, you can likely make almost any schedule work. If it isn’t, and you do not anticipate improvement, you may need to have a schedule with some specificity, for example, choosing a neutral place like the school or an extra-curricular activity, so that picking up and dropping off does not require you to see your co-parent in person. Either way, flexibility is required in both situations to diffuse any tension that may exist between you and your ex. Flexibility also helps to keep the child(ren) out of the conflict too.
- Your commitment to keep the schedule, and your willingness and ability to be flexible about it will benefit your child(ren). As you work on this, here are some questions to ask yourselves:
- Do you or your co-parent travel for work or other reasons on an unpredictable schedule?
- Can you or they accommodate the schedule you want without making it an issue for the kids?
- If travel is an issue for one or both of you, it may be necessary to think through a plan before implementing a particular schedule.
- Right of First Refusal - would you, or they, have the right of first refusal? For example, if they or you can’t have the kids on one or more of the agreed upon days, would your co-parent have the option to take them? Or, would both of you be expected to have child care in place for these instances? Thinking through the options and making them part of your Parenting Plan is a very good idea.
What Works for Us
Once you’ve factored in all of these elements, it’s time to build a plan that works for you, your co-parent and your child(ren). The options are abundant and may be customized but, if you are sharing 50/50 custody, there are a few common practices that exist for rotating the schedule.
For examples of time sharing based on other common physical custody percentages schedules, for example, 60/40, 70/30 and 80/20, visit www.custodyexchange.com.
Co-parenting Plans Explained:
- The alternating weeks schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 1 week with one parent and the next week with the other parent.
- 2 weeks schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 2 weeks with one parent and then 2 weeks with the other parent.
- The 3-4-4-3 schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 3 days with one parent, 4 days with the other parent, 4 days with the first parent and then 3 days with the other parent
- The 2-2-5-5 schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 2 days with each parent and then 5 days with each parent.
- The 2-2-3 schedule: Your child(ren) spend(s) 2 days with one parent, 2 days with the other parent and 3 days with the first parent. Then, the next week it switches.
- The alternating every 2 days schedule: Your child(ren) switch between the parents every 2 days.
As noted previously, it is generally better for only the youngest children to have schedules that rotate every 2 days (or more). As children get older, it may work for them to stay with one parent for longer periods of time.
Tweens & Teens
One advantage of the 2-2-5-5 schedule is having your child(ren) consistent days of the week, that is, you will always have Mondays and Tuesdays or Wednesdays and Thursdays, for example, which allow you to schedule particular lessons or events for consistent days that they are with you. The disadvantage is a relatively short time period between transition, so it may be more practical with younger children unless your tweens and teens don’t mind the shuttling around part very much.
Nesting Is Not Just for Birds
All of the schedules we’ve discussed relate to moving the kids from one household to another. A less common but possible option is called “Nesting.” This requires the co-parents to move in and out of the household instead of the child(ren). It requires that you and your co-parent have a particularly high level of regard, respect and trust for each other, even if you live in separate bedrooms of the house. Some co-parents even manage to share one apartment or other dwelling outside of the family home where they live when not in the family home. It isn’t generally a long-term solution and some experts recommend ending the “Nesting” exercise before either parent begins dating. If you think Nesting can work for you and your co-parent, it can be very good for the kids to allow them to stay in one place, at least for a period of time for their adjustment to the new reality.
In addition to the normal schedule, you should also consider how holidays, vacations, and other days off from school will work. This can all be part of your Parenting Agreement. Often, co-parents alternate holidays and days off from school annually or, and this is the important part, in the way that best works for them and their child(ren). The key, again, is a plan that is workable and keeps conflict low(er).
The key to a good Parenting Plan is good communication. This doesn’t mean you and your co-parent do not have issues between you. It means you need to be able to discuss issues related to your kids, even when you disagree, and have a method to resolve the disagreement that doesn’t drag your kids into the middle of the conflict. Often, email is a viable way to communicate, we just recommend you keep it brief and courteous. If agreement cannot be achieved after, for example, three rounds of back and forth by email, you can specify, in your Parenting Plan that you see a Parenting Coordinator or Mediator specializing in parental conflict, to get help resolving your disagreements. It’s rare that going to court gets you the kind of decision that is helpful to you and your children. It’s much better to figure these things out yourselves. If that’s not possible, work with a professional who is educated about you and your family, who can help you and your co-parent strategize about finding a solution that works in your particular family. After all, although it now has a different form, a family of divorce is still that: a family. You and your co-parent will be connected, in some form, through your child(ren) forever so figuring out how to navigate that will set a tone that may help you and your child(ren) for many years to come.
*Special Thanks to my bonus child, Sophia Truman, 13, for contributing her thoughts about custody schedules for tweens and teens to this article. Click ahead for more information on how to co-parent
Cherie Morris practices as a Parent Coordinator and Certified Divorce Coach. She is trained as a lawyer, yoga teacher and is also an author, divorced mother of 4 and now part of a blended family. Life is always interesting and challenging.
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