How to Choose the Best Parenting Plan for Your Child

Sweet Smiling Family selfie at the park. concept for How to Choose the Best Parenting Plan for Your Child.

A parenting plan is at the center of every Maryland custody case or divorce involving children. Whether you commit to a collaborative divorce, negotiate a settlement with your co-parent, or ask the Court to resolve your custody dispute, you will need to have a proposal for what you think your child’s custody and parenting time should look like after the case is over. So how do you choose the best parenting plan for your child? What do you need to think about before signing an agreement or heading to court?

What is a Maryland Parenting Plan?

In Maryland, a child custody agreement, allocation of parental responsibilities, and visitation schedule are combined into a single “parenting plan.” This parenting plan form can be written up by the parties, drafted by lawyers, or ordered by the Maryland Family Court after a trial or evidentiary hearing. It must be filed with the court any time a party asks the court to establish or modify child custody.

A parenting plan is one part custody order, one part instruction manual for how your family will handle child-related issues. When well thought out and drafted, they can improve co-parenting and help you create a collaborative partnership with your child’s other parent, that reduces conflict and gives each parent the chance to propose and consider solutions to the everyday problems that come with raising children. Its uniform format makes it easier for court officers to understand the family dynamic, and the plan, making it easier for the parties to enforce the order or request modifications when necessary. (More on that later.)

Who Must Submit a Parenting Plan?

The Maryland courts require parties to submit parenting plans in any Maryland case involving the custody of a minor child. Most often, those parties are the child’s legal parents. But anyone who is seeking to create or maintain a parent-child relationship can be required to provide a parenting plan. That includes:

  • Mother and fathers
  • Biological fathers seeking to establish paternity
  • Adoptive parents
  • De facto parents (such as stepparents and non-biological partners who have played a parental role)
  • Guardians (including custodial grandparents)

Joint Statements on Decision-Making and Parenting Time

If you and your spouse or co-parent are unable to agree on a parenting plan, then it is up to the court to decide your child’s custody and visitation arrangement. Instead of a parenting plan, you will file a “Joint Statement of the Parties Concerning Decision-Making Authority and Parenting Time.” This form informs the court that a custody hearing is needed, and outlines the issues where you agree and disagree.

But just because you disagree doesn’t mean you can get out of choosing the best parenting plan for your child. The Joint Statement requires each party to propose their own resolution to the issues of:

  • Parental responsibility and decision-making
  • Parenting time and holidays
  • Transportation and exchanges
  • Communication between parents and children
  • Child Care
  • Other issues

Core Elements of a Maryland Parenting Plan

Your parenting plan can be as flexible, or as detailed as you need it to be. Some families prefer more general statements that allow for adjustments based on one parent’s work schedule, or another’s mental health challenges. Others benefit from the certainty of a definite and specific schedule. In either case, though, your Maryland parenting plan needs to contain certain core elements:

Parental Responsibility & Decision-Making Authority (Legal Custody)

This part of your parenting plan determines which parent (or parents) are in charge of making decisions about your child’s:

  • Medical care
  • Mental health
  • Education
  • Religious training
  • Extracurricular activities

This includes the authority to choose medical providers and schools, and to sign your children up for activities, camps, and lessons (including driver’s training). You may choose to share these responsibilities, divide them up, or give one parent the deciding vote (what in some states is called “sole legal custody”).

To determine the best parenting plan for your child, look at how you and your co-parent managed these decisions before your relationship turned sour.

  • Was one parent the one to make all the appointments?
  • Did you both attend parent-teacher conferences?
  • Does one parent have professional training (as a doctor or teacher, for example), that makes them better able to understand the child’s situation?
  • Does either parent have mental health or employment challenges that make it hard for them to respond to issues that arise?

Keep in mind that designating parental responsibility to one parent doesn’t prevent the other parent from having access to the child’s records, talking to teachers, or otherwise being involved in the child’s care and upbringing. Its primary purpose is to establish what happens when the two co-parents disagree on what is best for your child.

It also doesn’t affect a parent’s ability to take the child to the ER or urgent care if they get sick or injured during parenting time. Instead, it can serve as a roadmap for anxious parents about what to do and who to call while you are waiting to be seen by a doctor.

Parenting Time (Physical Custody)

The parenting time part of a Maryland parenting plan lays out where your children will spend their time on a regular basis. (In other states this may be called physical custody or a visitation schedule). When both parents live close to one another, you have a lot of flexibility in deciding the best parenting time plan for your child. You can customize your parenting time schedule as much as you want to make sure it addresses your child’s best interests and both parents schedules. If you are looking for a place to start, some common schedules include:

  • Daytime-only visitation (generally reserved for infants or cases where one parent’s home is unsafe)
  • Staying with one parent during the school week and the other on alternate weekends
  • Switching homes on a week-on / week-off basis with a consistent exchange day each week
  • Rotating two-week schedules with alternating weekday and weekend parenting times for each parent (sometimes called 2-2-3, 2-2-5-5, or 3-4-4-3 schedules, based on the consecutive overnights spent with each parent)
  • Gradually increasing parenting time (often used when one parent has been absent from the child’s life for an extended period of time)

When deciding the best parenting time plan for your child, you should consider your child’s age and activity schedule, as well as your own needs. Younger children (even in grade school) tend to benefit from more frequent contact with both parents. Older children and teens often do better with fewer exchanges and a more flexible schedule.

At the same time, your parenting time plan should realistically reflect each parent’s ability to spend time with the children while they are in their care. If one parent works nights, it may not make sense for that parent to be responsible for getting the children to school in the morning. If parents live 2 hours away, frequent exchanges could be expensive and time consuming.

These considerations get especially difficult when one parent lives out-of-state, or is in active duty in the military. When distance prevents a weekly parenting time schedule, your parenting plan should instead carve out blocks of time when the non-custodial parent will have time with their children including:

  • Summer vacations
  • School breaks (Christmas, Easter, Midwinter)
  • When the non-custodial parent can visit the children’s home town

Holiday Visitation Schedules

Your parenting plan should also account for what happens on holidays and special occasions. It is important for your children to be able to take vacations and create holiday memories with both parents. Your parenting plan can make space for this by:

  • Setting out a specific holiday schedule
  • Dividing school breaks between parents
  • Allowing each parent a certain amount of vacation time (with notice to the other parent)
  • Creating a process for each parent to request adjustments for special occasions (like weddings, funerals, and family reunions)

If you know when these events regularly happen, you can plan ahead for them. But your parenting plan should also address what to do if changes need to be made. This will also allow you to make adjustments when other needs arise, including:

  • Work trips, overtime, or schedule shifts
  • Parents’ illness
  • Limiting exposure to or transmission of contagious diseases

Factors to Determine if a Parenting Plan is in the Best Interest of Your Children

Every Maryland parenting plan must be based on each of your children’s best interests. Maryland law lays out several factors that you should consider. If you cannot agree, the Court will use these factors determine a parenting plan for you:

  • Stability and foreseeable health and welfare of the child
  • Frequent, regular, and continuing contact with parties who can act in child’s best interest
  • Your ability to share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child with your co-parent
  • The child’s relationship with each of parent, siblings, other relatives, and important adults in their lives
  • The child’s developmental needs, including physical safety, emotional security, positive self-image, interpersonal skills, and intellectual and cognitive growth
  • The child's physical and emotional security and protection from conflict and violence
  • How you plan to meet the day-to-day needs of the child, including education, socialization, culture and religion, food, shelter, clothing, and mental and physical health
  • How well each parent:
    • places the child’s needs above their own
    • protects the child from negative effects of any conflict
    • maintains the child’s relationship with the parties, siblings, other individuals who may have a significant relationship with the child
  • Age of the child
  • Military deployment and its effect on the relationship with the child
  • Success or failure of prior court orders or agreements
  • Each of your responsibilities before and since separation
  • Location of your homes as it relates to your abilities to coordinate parenting time, school, and activities
  • Your relationship with each other, including how you communicate and co-parent without disrupting the child’s lives and your ability to resolve future disputes outside of court
  • The child’s preference, if age appropriate
  • The child’s other needs and interests
  • Any other factor you consider relevant

Notice that these factors are focused on your child’s needs, not the parents. They can account for any special needs or circumstances your child may face. They also address your child’s relationships with people other than you and your co-parent, such as siblings, relatives, other parental figures, and even important coaches or role models. You should try to keep this child-centered focus in mind as you are choosing the best parenting plan for your child. Whenever possible, do what’s right for them, even if it is inconvenient for you.

Other Considerations in Negotiating Your Parenting Time Plan

The best parenting plans go beyond custody and parenting time and serve as a troubleshooting guide for co-parents. Depending on your family’s situation, you may want to include provisions related to:

Communication Between Co-Parents and Children

How will you discuss child-related issues with your co-parent? Do you want to have regular status calls, or use technology to co-parent better? When and how will each parent be able to contact the child during the other parent’s time? What will you do if the child wants to talk to or see the other parent outside the regular parenting time schedule? Laying out a communication plan as part of your parenting plan can help parties with a history of conflict set boundaries, while also making sure your child can stay connected with both parents.

Transportation Costs & Exchange Points

Who will pay for plane tickets for out-of-state visitation? Will you meet at a halfway point, or will one parent drive the child to the other parent’s house? How will you communicate travel delays, and how much leeway can you expect from the other parent? The further apart the parties live, the more important it is to consider transportation time and expense as part of your parenting plan.

Shared Technology & School Laptops

Will your child have their own cell phone or tablet? Do they have a school-assigned laptop? Are there game devices or musical instruments that they will want access to in both houses? Make a plan for how shared technology and important items will be shared between households.

Extracurricular Activities

Who is responsible for transporting children to and from their extracurricular activities? Can the noncustodial parent attend practices, performances, or competitions? How many activities are too many? Can a parent withhold an activity as a form of discipline? Setting plans for how these responsibilities and decisions will be divided as part of your parenting plan can keep them from causing conflict after the case is concluded.

Child Care

Will either parent need to use regular child care? Should the children keep the same child care providers in both homes or attend the same daycare? Do you want one parent to be able to act as a child care provider during the other parent’s parenting time? Who will pay for the cost of child care expenses? Is there anyone in either parent’s sphere of contacts who should not be a care provider? Anticipating these needs in advance allows you to have a plan and improves collaboration between parents.

Children’s Expenses

Who will pay for lessons, club or sports equipment, or other child-related expenses? Will the children attend private school or receive homeschooling or tutoring? Are there any anticipated uninsured medical costs (like glasses or deductibles)? Child support doesn’t automatically cover all of your child’s expenses. You may want to include a division of costs as part of your parenting plan.

Introducing New Partners

After a divorce or breakup, many parents are eager to find new partners. But introducing those partners to your children too soon can be confusing for them, especially if that relationship doesn’t work out. You may want to consider including a plan for when and how new partners will be introduced, to avoid any emotional harm.

Resolving Future Parenting Disputes

Your parenting plan can also describe the process you and your co-parent will use when disagreements arise before going back to court. For example, you might opt to use the collaborative process or to hire a mediator to resolve your disputes. This can help keep you out of court and allow both parties to commit to reducing conflict and finding common ground when deciding what is best for your child.

At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our Maryland family lawyers are trained in collaborative divorce, mediation, and litigation strategies. We can help you choose the best parenting plan for your children, advocate for custody on your behalf, or help you modify a visitation schedule that no longer works for you. Contact us today or call (301) 658-7354 to talk to a divorce attorney about your case or schedule a mediation.