The old saying goes that when two parents are divorcing, they are splitting from each other, not their children. Lydia Sartain, a legal expert in divorce and family law, can attest to the importance of this very basic tenet.
A partner with Stewart Melvin & Frost, a Gainesville, Ga. law firm, Lydia is widely respected as a successful divorce attorney and mediator specializing in family law. She also is a former district attorney and a former advocate for children at the state level.
Lydia tells us why it is important in divorce situations to put your children first by developing a Parenting Plan.
Question: What is a Parenting Plan and is it required by the courts?
Lydia: A Parenting Plan is a written document of rules that divorced couples with children mutually agree upon in the future raising of their children. Some states, including Georgia, require that a parenting plan be filed with the court as part of the child custody agreement.
In my experience, however – whether required or not – a parenting plan simply makes good sense and is proven to be in the best interests of the child or children. Divorcing parents need to remember that they may be permanently separating but they will be parents together of their children for a lifetime.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is to sit down with divorcing parents who are committed to coming up with a plan that serves their children. They sometimes can’t stand each other, but they recognize their children love them both and that they should work together for the children.
Question: What should a good parenting plan include?
Lydia: A large part of the parenting plan revolves around scheduling. It is important to have an agreed-upon visitation schedule and residential schedule in place, as well as a schedule of parenting time over the holidays, birthdays, and other special events.
There are always going to be emergencies and other scheduling conflicts that naturally come up. So a good parenting plan should also address how you handle and agree upon schedule changes. Other basic elements of a parenting plan are rules governing the children’s contact with extended family members, friends, or the divorced spouse’s future girlfriend or boyfriend. If the child is of pre-school age, you also need to address child-care arrangements.
Question: How detailed should the parenting plan be?
Lydia: The more detail the better. But there must be room – and agreement – for adding more rules as necessary in the future. For example, you may want to set down some basic parenting rules on cellphone use, Facebook time, video games, and the types of movies that the child is allowed to see.
These are all matters that come up in the everyday raising of a child, so it is important that you be as consistent as possible – just as you would if the family were still together under the same roof.
Question: Conflict is usually the reason for divorce, so it would seem likely to still be a factor in putting together a parenting plan. What if a divorced couple can’t agree on certain rules in a parenting plan?
Lydia: If you truly love your children, you should find a way to come together on a parenting plan. It is in the best interest of the future development and maturing of your child.
My advice in putting together a parenting plan is to work with the spouse like you would in a business situation. At the office, you don’t always like your business colleague or client but to get your job done, you learn to reach consensus and agreement. Divorced couples should take the same approach in agreeing on how to raise their children together.
If that piece of advice is not motivation enough, then there is yet another reason: the courts. If you can’t come together on a parenting plan, a judge may have to do it for you. Nobody is typically happy in that scenario.
Question: Along with the parenting plan, what else should divorcing couples do?
Lydia: In addition to the parenting plan regarding your children, divorced couples should also agree to follow a code of conduct between themselves. They should agree to treat each other with respect at all times. And each parent should agree never to say negative things to the child about the other parent.
There may still be conflict, but the divorced couple should always refrain from displaying their disagreements in front of their children. It will only potentially harm the emotional well-being of the child. In making any decision regarding the children, the divorced parent should always decide what is best for the child, not how the decision can hurt or get back at the other parent. The child should never be made a pawn in the divorced parents’ disagreements.
Finally, remember that there will be many special events in the life of your child – like a wedding or graduation – where the divorced couple will come together to show support. In these times, it is especially important that the divorced couple show support for their children by being respectful to each other.
In all of this advice, I’m simply saying you should put your children’s needs and well-being first. It’s your responsibility as a parent, whether divorced or not.