By Colleen Honquest
Here is a basic guide for individuals in High Conflict Divorce to write a Joint Parenting Agreement (JPA) that is clear and therefore will help to reduce any stress and miscommunication in your parenting placement time. By having a clear and easy to enforce agreement, you are better able to be a “present parent” with your children. Your wishes must be clearly worded and spelled out to avoid having to return to court in the future. You can verbally agree to do different things AFTER the Joint Parenting Agreement is a signed order from the court. You always have the choice to make exceptions and do things differently to fit future circumstances. However, having a very clearly written Court Ordered JPA is critical.
If you are asking for shared parenting, keep the weekday schedule the same every week. This is important if the kids are going back and forth between parents’ homes. This way, they know their schedule will be the same each week and they can feel somewhat in control of planning for themselves and their activities and time with friends. Not to mention, your ability to plan around your work schedule and activities for the children. There are several different types of schedules: 2/2/5 exchanges; week on/week off; 50/50 with exchanges every few days; or weekly dinners for one parent with alternating weekends.
An example of a 2/2/5/schedule is: Monday and Tuesday are her days. Wednesday and Thursday are your days. Every other weekend Friday after school through Monday at 8 am. This schedule allows 5 days in a row for both parents every other week. It is insane to change the days every other week. You can always verbally agree to switch parenting days, on occasion, after you are divorced and your JPA is a permanent court order. This set-up is a much better schedule for the kids and their stability. Any Judge would agree that this schedule is good for families with young children who want to have 50/50 shared parenting. This allows 2 days on, 2 days off, every other weekend for each parent.
I find that it’s best to have weekends extend from Friday after school until Monday morning school drop-off. The kids go to Dad’s/Mom’s on Friday at 8 am (on non-school days) or after school on Friday until Monday at 8 am (non-school days) or after school on Monday. This allows the kids the full weekend with yourself or your ex until Monday morning. No need to cut the weekend short to drop off kids at the other parent’s home. If you have a difficult ex, they will make your life very difficult if you ever want to take the kids out of town for the weekend.
Keep Schedule Consistent: If there is a recommendation that you change days of the week every other week, stop and try to write on a calendar just one month of parenting time and you will see just how confusing that would be. I have seen this recommended quite often. If you are a working parent, just trying to plan anything even 2 months out will cause you to rip your hair out. Not to mention trying to juggle work events when your schedule changes every week. Much more important, try to find a nanny or caregiver, etc. who can work this kind of schedule? Nearly impossible.
The wording in the JPA: Using words such as “substantial deference to the desires of the child” with respect to visitation time and/or “desires of the child” can set you up for manipulation by your ex-spouse. Consider omitting these words. Otherwise, your ex may claim that the children’s’ preferences are the reason for every request that he/she makes for schedule changes and activity requests. You do not need the headache.
Extracurricular activities: These should be decided on by both of you unless the communication is not working at all. Then JPA should designate one parent to make these decisions. Clearly worded so that one parent cannot make arrangements for activities that will infringe on the other’s parenting time. Make sure that the Marital Settlement Agreement covers who pay for extracurricular activities and when to be reimbursed.
Again, be careful of including wording around extracurricular activities that includes “child preferences”. A manipulative ex may schedule extracurricular activities that “the child prefers” during your parenting time. Also, no vague wording regarding extracurricular schedules- like activities that the child may want to participate in will be allowed. Both parents (or a designated parent or custodial/residential parent) should have to agree for the child to participate in extracurricular activities. Trust me, your ex will determine their preferences to fit theirs.
Terminology for Caregiver(s) for children: This may seem “nitpicky” but for those of you who are dealing with a difficult or Borderline personality, words always matter. Include the terms daycare, Nanny, Babysitter, Grandparent or Relative, or any designated “caregiver” that either parent chooses. If either parent objects to the other’s choice of provider, then they can run a background check to ensure no criminal history exists-at their own expense. If no history is found, then “caregiver” stays in place. Do not allow wording that says both parents must agree on your choice of caregiver. This is important for those of you dealing with a difficult or Borderline personality as an ex-spouse.
Communication with “caregiver” for children: (see definition above) Calls and texts to another parent’s caregiver can only be done if there is a true emergency. This is defined as medical, school, or health-related emergency issues involving professional provider intervention.
Calls from either parent allowed ONCE per day. Each parent may call or text once per day. In high conflict situations, this is especially important. You do not want your ex to be able to text and call constantly to disrupt your parenting time. I recommend that you choose a time of day (example-Between 6-7 pm or whatever best fits your work and home schedule) If one parent chooses not to call, that is perfectly okay. This is just a guideline to limit excessive calls and texts on the part of one parent.
Therapy: Be sure and include a very clear clause on therapy options for the children. This section needs to be well written. If you are in a high conflict divorce, it is important that you include the therapist’s name (or two) in the Joint Parenting Agreement so that you don’t have to go to Court later because your ex suddenly doesn’t agree on who the therapist should be. You will also have to state whether a joint decision is required in this area. Remember, if your therapist can no longer provide your child therapy, for whatever reason, you want the option to find another provider as soon as possible. Joint decision making on your choice of therapist will probably not be feasible so you should clarify what “Plan B” is if your therapist is no longer available. In my case, I had to return to court to ask that my child be able to attend therapy because our Marital Settlement Agreement stated that we must “jointly decide” on whether or not my son could even attend therapy. My ex felt that my son “didn’t need his head filled with lies and ideas” and that a therapist would, “put him on drugs like his Mom and mess up his brain.” I am still not sure what that even meant. I spent six months back in court (and thousands of dollars) with his lawyer and dealing with the stall tactics that are his lawyer’s modus operandi. The Judge finally ruled that I could enroll my son in therapy, and I gave the Judge names of several therapists whom my ex promptly rejected. Finally, we gave the Judge a listing of therapists who were covered under our health insurance and he picked a name off the list. Not ideal but we got lucky and the Judge picked a competent therapist whom I had known previously. You should also ask for “protective or closed counseling” for your children. This means that neither of the parents can meet with the provider to discuss what the child shares in therapy. It is important that the child feels that what they say to their therapist is private and not transmitted to either parent. Your therapist will need to be informed of this arrangement. I recommend giving the therapist a copy of your Joint Parenting Agreement.
Guidelines for Airline Travel: This is in case your ex moves out of state; Can a child travel alone? Who pays? Who picks up and drops off at the airport? You can always bend on this to fit your preference later after you are divorced. However, the written court order must be very, very clear.
Sick Days for Kids: Does child stay with parent that they are already with, in case of illness, or do they go to the parent who is scheduled to have them on that day? Decide what is best for the child. Do they go to the other parent or remain with parent whose parenting time is on that day. Remember to keep in mind how your job will be affected if you concede to stay home on all the children’s sick days.
Also, who will pick up the child at school or daycare, in case of illness? A parent whose day it is on the schedule or designated 3rd party? Who stays at home with a child? Parent? Caregiver? Who takes off work?
Scheduling Considerations: Can one parent have 3 weeks in a row? Does the schedule automatically change after one parent has 2 weekends in a row? What kind of written notice is required to request a schedule change? 24 hours? 48 hours? Only in writing? Do we have a Right of First Refusal? Ex. If one parent is unable to care for a child for eight hours or more, they must call the other parent and give them the option of taking the child before arranging for outside help.
Holiday Parenting Time– You can get creative, but the most common method seems to be: Odd Years with one parent and Even Years with the other parent.
(Spring Break and Winter Break are handled under School Vacation)
-Also, consider Government Holidays as your children will be off school on those days….
-Visitation for these designated one-day holidays shall begin at 8:30 am the day of the holiday through 8:30 am on the following day.
**(The visitation period for holiday weekends shall be from 8:30 am Friday through 8:30 am on Monday (or 8:30 am on Tuesday in the case of holidays falling on a Monday (i.e. Labor Day or Memorial Day, etc.) The Thanksgiving Holiday shall be from 8:30 am Wednesday to 8:30 am the following Monday.
Summer Vacation time must include the number of weeks in a row that each parent may request time with the child(ren). Also, when will written notice of summer vacation be required for each parent? Ex. End of April each year. If there are conflicts in your requests, on Odd year Father gets his choice and on Even years Mother gets her choice.
Special Occasion Parenting Time–Ex. Father’s Day/Mother’s Day; Parents’ Birthdays; Children’s’ birthdays- odd years/even years is best rather than splitting the day between two households. Remember, this is about the child’s comfort and enjoyment on their birthday.
I recommend not having kids leave in the evening on special occasion days to go to the other parents as that proves to be a nightmare and events are cut short and not enjoyed as much if a child has to leave later. Visitation on these special days starts at 8:30 am the day of the “holiday” to 8:30 am on the following day.
School Vacation Parenting Time
-Winter Break- 1st half one parent; 2nd half other parent
-Spring Break- odd years one parent; even years other parent whole break- allows for vacations
-Summer Break- how many weeks in a row can each parent request time? How much written notice must be given?
Pick Up and Drop Off– Be clear as to which parent is responsible for pick up on visitation days; You can put a clause in the Joint Parenting Agreement (JPA) that talks about how long is acceptable to be late and possible consequences. Also, include caregiver titles and specifics for 3rd parties that you may have to use to pick up your child. (Example Babysitters, nannies, relatives, or designated caregiver of YOUR choice. I would advise you to include all these terms on your JPA for your caregiver. This covers yourself for any type of caregiver. Use wording that gives each parent the right to choose their own caregiver during their parenting time. You can request that criminal background checks be done on each side before hiring a caregiver. If you make this a mutual decision that requires both parties to agree, you are setting yourself up for future disagreements and visits to court.
Have your ex drive to you on all his/her days to pick up kids and you drive to his/her house to pick up kids on your days. You may want to have the Joint Parenting Agreement state that both parents live within 10 miles (you decide distance) of each other and if either parent chooses to move farther away than 10 miles (or distance designated by agreement) then that parent will have to do drop-offs and pick-ups. Be very clear.
Communication: If you are in a high conflict situation, you should consider using Our Family Wizard (or similar app) to ensure that your ex cannot harass you with texts and abusive emails. You can have notifications set up to send you a text whenever your Ex sends an email. For approx. $8.25 per month, it keeps everything in one place and therapists, judges, and lawyers can all view it for free. No need for you to pull up and print out documents. It is a sanity saver.
These are just some of the important items to consider in a Joint Parenting Agreement (JPA). I recommend asking your lawyer or mediator for a JPA Template so that you can look at what the whole agreement looks like and fill it in for your reference as you work through the process with your ex-spouse. There are many sites such as illinoislegalaid.org that contain helpful links to state forms for JPAs. Always consider your children’s comfort and stability first as you write your JPA to best suit your family.
Colleen Honquest, Divorce Mediator and Certified Divorce Coach
Colleen Honquest is not a lawyer and does not give legal advice. This article is not intended as legal advice and was written using information based on her own personal experience in a High Conflict Divorce in family court and on her extensive research into clients’ rights.