When my first child was born, my husband and I had no plan for parenting, save, “do what we need to do to keep the child alive and DFCS from our doorstep.” We were stunned that inexperienced parents like us could just be handed charge of a helpless human being. There was no quiz, no test, no manual. We were simply congratulated, handed a complimentary can of formula and a few diapers, and sent on our way. So far, things have worked out well enough. But then again, my husband and I are still married and we’ve had no court involvement in our lives.
Generally speaking, in Georgia, within some extremely wide parameters, you are allowed to parent your children as you see fit. Once the Court gets involved, however, it is a completely different ball game. Back a few years ago, the legislature, with pressure from the Courts, no doubt, decided that when left to their own devices, litigants could not come up with workable or sufficiently detailed orders that kept them out of court in the future. The result of that decision is a document called a “parenting plan” which is a statutory requirement in all orders involving child custody or visitation.
The theory behind it is sound: the Courts got very tired of people coming back and back and back to Court because they disagreed about what the meaning of their order was in terms of visitation. This happened a lot. For example, let’s say the order said that the mother gets Christmas in even years, and the father gets Christmas in odd years. What does that mean, exactly? Does that mean the entire school break? If so, does that mean the minute school lets out, or the first hour that school wasn’t in session when it otherwise would have been? Or just the 24 hours that comprise December 25th? Does Christmas Eve count? How about New Year’s Eve, which is part of the same break from school? Some orders were clear about all of this, some were clear about some of it, and some were clear about none.
This wasn’t (just) because of the level of competency of the lawyers preparing the orders. A lot of people want their orders to be somewhat ambiguous. They don’t want to be tied in to a particular time of day. When things are going well, and everyone is getting along, you can deal with each holiday/weekend as it comes. But I promise you this: no matter how well you are able to work together for the sake of the children, there will come a time when you disagree. There will be a time when both of you have a cousin getting married at the same day. One of you will remarry and want to go out of town for a holiday for the new spouse’s family reunion. There will be a time when your 16 year old has no interest in spending a week out of town when the rest of her friends are doing all manner of fun stuff without the constant presence of parental units.
Thus, the birth of the parenting plan. Despite its specificity, it does allow for flexibility. Every one I’ve seen begins something like this, “The non-custodial parent shall have liberal visitation as the parties agree. In the event they cannot agree, the following schedule will apply.” In other words, y’all work it out like grownups. But, if you can’t work it out, here’s plan “B,” which the court will enforce if it has to. Plan “B” is a fill in the blanks form which allows you to look at your watch and compare the time and date to the plan to see where the child should be at any given moment. This is December 6, 2013, an odd year, and it is 10:46am. So that means the child should be, well, the child should be at school, but when she gets off the bus she should get off at her Mom’s house and stay there until 6:00pm when Dad comes to get her for the weekend, which ends at 6:00pm on Sunday.
Like any man-made creation, the parenting plan is not perfect. It doesn’t have a fill in the blanks section for deciding what the first weekend of the month is, for example. (Is it a weekend when December 1 is on a Saturday?) There is room for argument about what ‘every other weekend’ means when holidays get involved. It sometimes conflicts itself, when visitation periods end up in the same school break (Easter and Spring break sometimes coincide; July 4th and summer visitation can conflict.) And what happens when the child goes to football camp for three weeks, or wants to go to Disney with her best friend’s family during Dad’s weekend? How about if dad or mom work in a job in which their off days are Tuesday and Wednesday?
The answers vary, depending on circumstance, and what is best for you is a variable based on what you want, what the Court will do, and what the opposing party is willing to agree to. As always, for the best, personalized advice, consult a lawyer who can help you understand the pros and cons of what you want to do.
This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here.