The Parenting Agreement
The vast majority of child custody cases are able to be resolved before a case needs to go to court. This can happen as a result of informal negotiations between the parents or other parties (and their attorneys) or through alternative dispute resolution processes like mediation or collaborative law. Below is a discussion about parenting agreements and court approval of the same in child custody cases.
What Is a Parenting Agreement?
If the parents or other parties in a custody dispute (and their attorneys) negotiate and resolve all issues related to child custody and visitation, whether informally or through out-of-court processes like mediation or collaborative law, the couple's decisions are finalized in detail in a written agreement. This agreement may be referred to as a "settlement agreement" in some states, while in other states the document may be called a "custody agreement" or "parenting agreement."
What Should the Parenting Agreement Include?
Although one should keep in mind that parenting agreements will vary widely from case to case, these agreements typically cover the key areas affecting the parents' children, such as:
- Where the child will live (called physical custody);
- Visitation schedules
- Who will be involved in major decisions related to the child's upbringing and welfare (called legal custody);
- With whom the child will spend major holidays, birthdays, and vacations (including schedules)
- How contact with grandparents, family friends, and other third parties will be handled; and
- How disputes and changes to the agreement will be handled.
Keep in mind that the above are simply some of the most common and important issues dealt with by parents who are splitting up. Parents can customize an agreement in countless ways to their and their children's specific needs.
Parenting Agreements and Court Approval
The parenting agreement is usually submitted to a judge for final approval. If the custody agreement is part of the parents' divorce, the agreement is filed in court in the county/district branch of state court where the divorce petition was filed. An informal court hearing may follow, during which the judge may ask some basic factual questions, including whether each party understands and chose to voluntarily sign the agreement. As long as the judge is satisfied that the agreement was fairly negotiated and that it was made with the best interests of the child in mind, the agreement will almost always receive court approval.
Violating a Court-Approved Parenting Agreement
In most states, the custody or parenting agreement then becomes a binding court order or "decree," dictating the parents' (or other parties') rights and obligations under the agreement. The parties to the agreement must stick to it or they may face legal consequences. For example, if a parenting agreement has been converted into a court order, and the agreement is violated by a father who repeatedly fails to return his daughter on time after weekend visits, the mother may go to court to enforce the agreement and resolve the matter.
If you would like to know more about making a parenting agreement with your child's other parent, or if you have questions that are specific to your child custody case, you may want to talk to an attorney in your area with child custody experience who may be able to help.