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High Conflict Parenting Plans

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Parenting plans become high conflict parents’ bible or constitution in a sense. In the future, this document will inevitably be referred to in hard times. It is what will be read to sort out problems. Parenting plans are likely the one and only thing divorce attorneys write in our cases that can create future peace. We do a lot of separating and ending financial entanglements, but as far as what we salvage in the family unit, the parenting plan is really the one and only thing we do that has the ability to preserve any family unity.  

     In divorces, no one wins. Divorce attorneys can, however, consider our parenting plans as the flag that may wave at the end of future co-parenting battles. Keep in mind though that the flag won’t wave unless it fixes something. So, your clearly written and well contemplated written word solving a future parental dispute, is the only “win” a family law practitioner will ever get. 

     How do we make sure our parenting plans are worth the paper they are written on? We write something that contemplates future changes, addresses the family’s specific needs, and by all means considers the parties’ personalities and communication styles. In my opinion, write something that doesn’t expect more than is reasonable given the circumstances. For example, if there is a history of any violence or poor communication, don’t pretend the parties can find a way to get along one day. If they do fabulous, they won’t need your parenting plan. You are writing for worst case scenario, i.e., these people are ready to duke it out like Jerry Springer back in the day. Picture that, then write a plan that keeps the kids from watching the fiasco. Generally, the less cooperation is required, the better chance for peace. 

     I understand that negotiating an agreed parenting plan that has detail takes work. Frankly, sometimes conflict between the attorneys and a sense of wanting to control the document itself often derails the inclusion of details simply because it’s too hard to get it all in the document. We have to pick our battles no doubt. One of the best pieces of advice a judge has ever given me went something like this, “figure out what each party wants, then narrow it to what each party needs, then aim for the needs.” 

     Think about times when your own parents fought or didn’t agree during your childhood. Now picture the kid at issue in what you are about to write in the parenting plan. Think about what that child will be doing at 5, 10, 15 years old and the issues that may arise. Think about writings that endure and realize that the needs and issues will change over time, similar to a government’s constitution. The founding fathers contemplated each law and topic that would be necessary for carrying on a government that was peaceful and the constitution endures because it contemplated change. You give your client value if and only if, they don’t have to come back to change what you write every time life changes. 

     Many parents have problems reading the parenting plans. Don’t forget who your audience is in this writing, just like when you’d write a letter, article, novel, or anything else. Just because we are lawyers does not mean that everything we write is for the Judge. If your client doesn’t understand the parenting plan, it ain’t worth the paper it is written on and you better believe that stress is going to surround next Christmas when the parents are trying to figure out holiday parenting time at the last minute. Avoid legal jargon. Make sentences short by removing anything extraneous. Finally, read the document with your client. 

     The reason we have jobs is because legal zoom will never be able to do what we do, so long as we are actually drafting specific documents that require a wealth of experience in dealing with co-parenting conflict on a daily basis as opposed to populating templates. Bring your client the true value of your experience by giving examples, teaching, and explaining what the document they are about to sign means. Don’t hand your client a template you just populated and say good luck. If we do that, we deserve to be replaced by legal zoom. 

Other tips: 

  1. Make sure you cover statutory minimum requirements. 750 ILCS 5/602.10. 
  2. Make the language so clear there is no possibility of ambiguity. No ambiguity means no fighting. If your client is in a high conflict co-parenting relationship, fighting is inevitable. Your job is to end/shorten the fight by giving the Parents a document that sets them straight when the conflict arises.
  3. Look on vendors websites for proposed language. For example, Our Family Wizard has model proposed language to put in your orders that can be found at https://www.ourfamilywizard.com/practitioners/model-order-language
  4. Don’t forget proposed plans are due 120 days after the petition per 750 ILCS 5/602.10. 
  5. Details! High conflict parents need to know what to do without consulting the other parent at all. Give your client the peace of knowing the exact day, time and location for parenting time transfers. 
  6. Kids’ possessions, toys, and clothes. The less stuff you share, the less fighting. Write a plan, if at all possible, that doesn’t send much more than the kid back and forth between households. 
  7. Cell phones. Make it clear that just because you pay for a child’s cell phone doesn’t mean you control that cell phone when it is with the other parent. Parents generally control day to day decisions, including when and how cell phones are used no matter who pays for them. 
  8. Don’t put child support in the parenting plan. First, the relevant statute doesn’t say child support is a requirement for parenting plans. Second, consider how much confusion might be created in the future if someone seeks to modify the parenting plan, but doesn’t really want to modify child support.