When parents separate, one of the biggest concerns is: “what’s going to happen with the kids?” Do you NEED a child custody agreement?

Some parents already know that they will take on primary care of their kids. Others decide that they will share custody of the kids equally. And many find themselves on two separate when it comes to where the kids should stay.

When parents are civil enough to cooperate, they assume they can just “work it out” between themselves without the need for any formal arrangements such as a custody order or written parenting plan. The question I’m frequently asked is “do we HAVE to have custody orders?”

My answer is almost always, you don’t have to, but you should.

Yes, the idea of working together, taking things day by day, and caring for the kids according to what’s going on with your family’s daily schedule is a great idea. But, more often than not, these informal arrangements become problematic. This is especially true when the parents first separate or before they have consciously established a positive co-parenting.

At some point, parents typically will likely have a disagreement regarding the children’s schedule, activities, childcare, financial needs, discipline, or other issues; if there is no set remedy in place, that’s when the drama begins.  When this happens, one parent will refuse to cooperate, refuse:

  • to “allow” the kids to go with the other parent,
  • to contribute to a financial obligation,
  • confer with the other parent regarding an important decision related to the kids,

the list goes on and on of the problems that can potentially arise when informal arrangements go sour.

When you are in a divided or blended family, the safest approach is to be proactive, understanding the potential for problems and disagreements, and plan accordingly. Hopefully, you can develop a cooperative co-parenting relationship and live happily ever after, but…you know the saying “prepare for the worst, hope for the best” That is especially true here. The best way to prepare for the worst is to establish a formal parenting plan.

Now, I’m not saying that to establish a formal plan you need to commence a custody battle. In fact, I’m telling you the opposite. If you and the other parent have an agreement, or think you can reach an agreement with the help of a neutral facilitator, you can jointly create a parenting plan without ever stepping a foot into a courtroom. Depending on where you live, you may even be able to establish an enforceable parenting plan without one visit to the courthouse.

Now, understand this: the key point here is that you need to establish an ENFORCEABLE parenting plan. Essentially, this means you want to establish a parenting plan and then have it signed by a judge so that it becomes an enforceable court order, albeit one that YOU create, it will still be enforceable in the event that you or the other parent wake up one day or randomly have a change of heart and decide that you aren’t going to follow the agreement.

It’s best to sit down with a mediator or otherwise create your written agreement at a time when you and the other parent are on good terms and/or can set your personal qualms with each other aside long enough to reason and make a plan solely based on what’s best for your children.

Keep in mind, circumstances surrounding your family will change constantly and you may need to deviate from your written parenting plan accordingly. You will always have the option to agree to change things day by day if necessary.

But, once your plan is signed by the court, even if you never have to take action to enforce it, your family will have the security in knowing that there are rules, schedules, and guidelines in place that are best for your family, irrespective of how you may be feeling about each other in a particular moment, that must be followed to maintain stability and consistency for your children.

Co-parenting is a partnership no different than a traditional business partnership.  And with partnerships, it’s always best to have your agreements in writing…just in case.