What is a Parenting Plan?
A Parenting Plan does two things:
- It is a schedule of when each parent will spend time with the children; and
- It will describe which decisions about the kids will be shared, or given to just one parent or the other.
You must fill out a Parenting Plan form in any case involving custody of children. For more information about filing a custody case, read the article on Custody and Visitation.
The Parenting Plan is a comprehensive parenting document that will govern:
- the parenting time schedule,
- each parent’s decision-making responsibilities,
- communication between parents,
- and more.
The Parenting Plan allows parents to propose a custody schedule that divides the responsibilities of caring for the children. The Court will consider each parent’s proposed parenting arrangements, and the share of caretaking functions each parent previously performed, when deciding the distribution of parenting time.
Where can I get a Parenting Plan form?
The court system uses a fill-in-the-blank form for Parenting Plans. There are several places and ways you can get the form.
- You can print a Parenting Plan form from the Supreme Court of West Virginia website. There is no charge to get the form this way.
- You can get a paper copy of the form at the Circuit Clerk’s office in your county. There is a small fee to get form packets from the Circuit Clerk (generally $15 or less). The fee can be waived if you are low income. You’ll need to fill out a “Fee Waiver Affidavit,” and verify each source of income using pay stubs, tax returns, or other official documents.
- You can use a simple computer-based system on the Legal Aid web site to create a Parenting Plan Form. All you do is answer questions on the screen. When you’ve filled out all the screens, your answers will be printed out on a Parenting Plan form. You can file that form with the Circuit Clerk. We call these Guided Self-Help Forms. For more information go to our page with all the Guided Self-Help Forms for family law matters.
What is an Individual Parenting Plan?
An Individual Parenting Plan is one party’s proposal for a reasonable division of parenting time. The parent filing a custody case must include a proposed Parenting Plan when they start the case. The other parent must file their proposed Parenting Plan as part of their answer to the case.
The judge will review the two different plans, and take testimony about why each party believes their plan is better for the children. The judge will then decide what the parenting plan will be. The judge may adopt one or the other parent’s plan, or create a very different plan than either party proposed.
What is a Joint Parenting Plan?
A Joint Parenting Plan is one you and the other parent make together. If both parents can agree on how to divide parenting time, you can submit a Joint Parenting Plan. Coming to an agreement is your opportunity to control how each of you will spend time with your children.
It is best if the two parents can reach an agreement before the custody case is filed. The Joint Parenting Plan can be filed at the beginning of the case. When that happens, judges are very likely to approve the agreed Joint Parenting Plan.
Sometimes no agreement is reached until part way through the case. Both parents will submit an Individual Parenting Plan at the beginning. At any time after that, the two parents can submit a Joint Parenting Plan whenever they reach an agreement. Sometimes the Judge may order you and the other parent to attend “Mediation” to help the two parents reach an agreement on the parenting plan before a hearing.
No matter when it is submitted, the judge will review your agreed plan in the hearing. The judge can refuse to adopt the agreed plan if the judge thinks it would be harmful to the children. Also, if the judge thinks the agreed plan wasn’t really “voluntary” and was forced on one side by the other, the judge can refuse to adopt the plan.
What is Mediation?
Mediation is a process where a court-appointed person meets with the parents and tries to help them reach an agreement about parenting time. If you and the other parent don’t agree on a custody schedule, the Judge will likely require you go to Mediation. But Mediation will not be required if there is a history of domestic violence and Mediation would be unsafe or unproductive.
If Mediation is ordered, the Mediator will talk to each parent to understand their proposed individual parenting plan. The Mediator then will help each parent work toward finding something both can agree upon. The goal is to get each parent to compromise enough to come up with an agreed parenting plan. As always, the judge will review the agreed plan in a hearing to make sure the plan is workable and is in the children’s best interest.
What factors should I consider when making a custody schedule?
Think of what’s best for your children. Consider what the children usually do day-to-day, and on holidays, and during vacations or other family events. Decide which parent they should be with during those times. The goal is to keep the children’s lives as similar as possible to the way it has been previously, to cause the least disruption for them. How the parents previously divided or shared daily caretaking functions is the root of determining parenting time. The parent who has typically provided more care will likely continue that pattern, and vice versa. The Court will ask at a hearing how the custody schedule you proposed reflects the previous caretaking functions provided by each parent.
What is the difference between day-to-day decision-making and major decision-making?
Day-to-day are relatively minor. Some examples are: what the children will eat for dinner, when they get up in the morning, whether they have to finish their homework before bed, when they go to bed, or what they should wear. Day-to-day decisions are the responsibility of whichever parent has the children when that kind of decision must be made.
In contrast, major decision-making responsibility involves things like medical care, education, or religious upbringing. These decisions have a much bigger impact on the children’s lives. These kinds of decisions can be shared by both parents, or given to only one parent. Here again, a lot will depend on who made this kind of decision in the past.
How does the Court decide on a Parenting Plan?
First, the Court will look at the caretaking functions performed by each parent before the separation. Once prior caretaking functions are established, the court will also consider other factors, such as:
- Permit the child to have a relationship with each parent who has performed a reasonable share of the caretaking functions;
- Accommodate the firm and reasonable preferences of a child who is fourteen years old or older. If a child is under fourteen, but sufficiently mature that he or she can intelligently express a voluntary preference, the judge will give that preference “some” weight;
- Keep siblings together if that’s necessary for their welfare;
- Protect the children when there is a gross difference in the quality of the emotional attachments between each parent and child, or in each parent’s demonstrated ability or availability to meet the children’s’ emotional and basic needs;
- Any prior agreements of the parents about parenting;
- Whether the proposed plan would be extremely impractical or that would significantly interfere with the children’s need for stability. Here courts will consider things like the distance between the parents’ homes, the cost and difficulty of transporting the children, the daily schedules of the parents and the children’s, and the ability of the parents to cooperate in the arrangement;
- Whether one parent relocates (or proposes to relocate) at a distance that would make it hard for the other parent to have reasonable parenting time; or
- The stage of the children’s development.
What if I want the other parent to have restricted parenting time?
A judge can restrict a parent’s time, or limit a parent’s custody. Factors that would justify limitations include:
- The parent has abused, neglected, or abandoned the children;
- The parent has sexually assaulted or sexually abused the children;
- The parent has committed domestic violence;
- The parent has interfered persistently with the other parent’s access to the children; or
- The parent has made one or more fraudulent reports claiming domestic violence or child abuse by the other parent.
If a parent has engaged in any of these acts, the court will consider limiting that parent’s time with the kids. This could mean that the parent who did these things might no longer have any parenting time at all, or the terms of custody awarded could be reduced or restricted. For example:
- Additional parenting time given to the other parent, to make up for any parenting time lost because of the bad conduct; or
- Additional parenting time to the other parent to repair any damage to the parent-child relationship because of the bad conduct; or
- The allocation of exclusive custodial responsibility to one parent and none to the other; or
- Third party supervision of the custodial time between the offending parent and the children; or
- Exchanges of the children between parents to take place through a third person instead of through a parent-to-parent meeting, or to take place in a protected setting; or
- Restrictions on the parent from communicating with or being near the other parent or the child; or
- A requirement that the parent abstain from alcohol or non-prescribed drugs during their parenting time, and/or in the 24-hour period before their parenting time; or
- Denial of overnight parenting time; or
- Restrictions on the presence of particular people while the children are with that parent; or
- A requirement that the parent post a bond to assure the return of the children following parenting time, or to assure some other action required by the court; or
- A requirement that the parent complete a program for perpetrators of domestic violence, for drug or alcohol abuse, or a program to correct another adverse factor; or
- Any other conditions that the court finds necessary to protect the safety of the child, a child’s parent, or any person whose safety immediately affects the child’s welfare.
Will my children have a say in the custody schedule?
If the children are least fourteen years old and can make an intelligent and voluntary suggestion, the court will consider their wishes in making a custody decision. That doesn’t mean they’ll get their way, but it does mean the court will hear them out. If the children are under fourteen, but sufficiently mature, their suggestion can be heard as well. However, a younger child’s suggestion does not carry the same weight as one who is fourteen.
Judges do not want to put young children (under age 10) in the position of saying what custody schedule the child wants. Too many young kids will feel like they’re being asked to “choose which parent they love the most.” The truth is children love both parents, and want to be with both of them. It’s unfair to the young child to be put in the middle. Judges won’t do it. Don’t hurt your own case with the judge by putting your young children in the middle.
How can we divide holidays?
Page seven of the Parenting Plan form has a long list of holidays. This is where you tell the court how you want to divide parenting time on holidays. There are lots of ways to do this. One parent can have the children one entire holiday this year, and then next year the other parent has that holiday. Or you can have an exchange at some point during the holiday, so that each parent gets part-time during that holiday. Like the rest of your parenting plan, the way the children will spend holidays should be similar to the way they spent those holidays in the past.
What are some examples of a Parenting Plan Custody Schedule?
Every case can be different, and every Parenting Plan Custody Schedule should be suited to fit the individual situation. There is no “one plan fits all.” Figure out what works best for the parents and children involved. Feel free to be creative and different, if that is practical for both the parents and for the children.
Elsewhere on the Legal Aid web site we have a computer-based system to help people create their own Parenting Plan form just by answering questions on the screen. We’ve included some of the most common parenting time schedules, and you can adjust them to cover whichever days of a week you prefer. Your answers will be printed out on a form that you can then file with the Circuit Clerk. We call these “Guided Self-Help Forms.” For more information go to our page with all the Guided Self-Help Forms for family law matters.
There are a few schedule plans that many families find useful. Probably the most frequently used models are the following:
- The Every-Other-Weekend Schedule
On this schedule, one parent has the children during the week every week, while the two parents alternate the weekends. The Court may adopt this schedule if one parent actually performed “most” of the caretaking duties for the children “most” of the time. This way the amount of custody awarded is similar to the pattern the parents used before they separated.
Although you are alternating weekends, it is best to label the weekends as the first, second, third, and fourth weekends in a month so that you always know from the calendar whose weekend it is. There are a few months in the year when there is actually a fifth weekend; you will need to determine which parent gets any “fifth weekend” that comes up. This model plan may also include a shorter visit between weekends if necessary, such as a Wednesday evening visit or Tuesday overnight visit.
- The Summer-and-Holidays-Only Schedule
Families may choose this schedule if one parent lives far away from the other, and the long-distance travel would disrupt the children’s life to visit more frequently. By having lengthy visitation during the summer months, and during other longer school holidays, the children can still maintain a relationship with the parent while keeping their lifestyle similar to the way it was before the separation.
- Fifty/Fifty Time: The 2-days/2-days/3-days Split Schedule
This schedule allows the children to spend the two days of the week with Parent A, then the next two days with Parent B, then the last three days with Parent A again. The schedule will continue in this pattern over time so that parenting time is divided evenly. This kind of schedule can be set so that one parent always has the weekend. Or it can be set so that the weekends are split up. Or the rotation can be changed from week to week so that the weekends alternate between the parents. Often, exchanges are on Wednesday (for 2 days), then Friday (for two days), the Sunday (for 3 days), to minimize disruptions during the school week. This schedule generally succeeds only if the parents live close enough together for the frequent transportation back and forth. The 2/2/3-Split schedule is a good option if prior caretaking was shared pretty evenly between parents because this plan gives both parents frequent and equal parenting time.
- Fifty/Fifty Time: The 4-day/3-day Split Schedule
This schedule includes the option for exchanges on Sundays and Wednesdays, permitting the children to spend four days with Parent A and three days with the Parent B. This schedule works best if the parents live close enough together for the frequent transportation back and forth. It also makes the most sense if prior caretaking was mostly equal in the past, with one parent providing slightly more care. It allows the children to settle into each home for a few days before a transition. It also allows the children to see each parent frequently. Weekends can be divided up so that each parent gets a part of every weekend; or the schedule can be “swapped” each week so that weekends alternate.
- Fifty/Fifty Time: The Rotating-Weeks Schedule
This schedule allows the children to spend one week with Parent A and the next week with Parent B. Sometimes this schedule can include a short mid-week visit (either an evening only, or an overnight) to break up the long separation each week. Similarly to the 2/2/3-Split Schedule, this schedule works best if parents live near each other so there isn’t a disruption in the children’s school life. Some families will choose this schedule because there is less transitioning and it allows the children to settle into each parent’s home for a full week. However, this schedule should reflect caretaking functions that were shared half-and-half prior to the case. If one parent did not contribute to the caretaking functions half the time in the past, this schedule may not be best.
If your situation is unique and one of these schedules would not work, you should contact an attorney for help. You can apply for help from Legal Aid or contact other legal resources.