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 Parenting Plans

In Montana, "Child Custody" is replaced by the concept of "Parenting Time" and typically both parents share equally in all decision-making.  The final agreement between you and your co-parent designating a parenting schedule and co-parenting guidelines is called a "parenting plan." The Court must find that your plan is in the Best Interests of the Child, based on 12 factors designated in Montana law. The plan must divide parenting responsibility and be clear enough to be enforced by a police officer or court in the event of an emergency.

 Low-Conflict Parenting Plan Services

Coming up with a parenting plan that best suits your needs can be a difficult task. At Forward Legal we can help with:

  • Parenting Plan Consultations: Meri will meet with one or both parents to evaluate logistics, difficult sticking points, and age-appropriate schedules, and will provide on-the-spot recommendations or edits to any existing, proposed, or draft parenting plan. A consultation is appropriate when parents are drafting their own paperwork or would like to make an informal amendment to their parenting plan. If parents are not working with attorneys or already drafting their own plans, Meri may draft the plan for parents' signatures.

  • Parenting Plan Mediation: Over the course of several meetings, Meri will meet with both parents together or separately to evaluate parenting needs, logistics, and to fully draft a final plan, or amendment to an existing plan, for both parents' signature.

 High-Conflict Parenting Plan Services

Emotions can run high when trying to craft your parenting plan, making it difficult to come up with a business-like document that helps rather than hinders your co-parenting relationship:

  • High Conflict Co-Parenting Evaluations: Meri will meet with each parent to identify points of conflict, conflict styles, and the logistics involved and will provide detailed recommendations on parenting plan provisions to solve the problems presented. Parents may then use the recommendations to draft a final plan or to present to the court in support of a final plan.

  • Co-Parent Coaching: Through the Cooperative Parenting Institute, Meri will walk parents through a Co-Parenting curriculum designed to help identify triggers and resolve co-parenting disputes in a more business-like fashion. Meri can work with one or both parents for just a few sessions or as much 16-hours, the estimated time to complete the full curriculum. Through this process, the parties do not receive a new parenting plan but rather will learn to manage their own feelings and expectations in order to better implement their existing plan.

  • High Conflict Settlement Conference: When parties with widely different views of the parenting plan are directed to attend a settlement conference, the parties will benefit greatly from hiring a settlement master with skills in high conflict parenting plan drafting and conflict resolution. As the settlement Master, Meri can make recommendations about parenting plan rules that will best solve the disputes at hand without creating more rules that only serve to create more to fight about. A settlement conference is an all-day meeting with both parties present in separate rooms with their attorneys. Meri will work back and forth, brainstorming win-win solutions and agreed-upon rules that will help the parenting plan work for both parties and especially the child.

  • Guardian Ad-Litem: When cooperation is minimal, a GAL can be the final necessary solution to co-parenting conflict. When hiring a GAL, parents agree to allow the GAL to investigate and provide recommendations directly to the Court regarding parenting schedules, co-parenting guidelines, and services necessary (e.g. therapy) to reduce conflict and meet the children's needs.

What is in most parenting plans?

When everything is left up for negotiation, couples can end up in endless arguments which inevitably affect the children. A good parenting plan should designate clear roles and expectations that help parents work together. Your parenting plan should include, at a minimum:

  1. A general residential schedule with clear exchange times and places.

  2. An easy to interpret holiday schedule with clear exchange times and places.

  3. A backup plan for when number 1 and 2 can't be followed.

  4. A shared expectation for how far ahead parents should plan activities and scheduling issues with the child (e.g. Vacations or schedule changes need to be finalized 2 weeks ahead of time).

  5. A method for sharing information, and resolving all logistical questions or disputed decisions (e.g. via a shared calendar, or particular email address) to ensure that parents aren't under constant barrage of discussions and information-sharing which becomes difficult to track.

  6. The required elements under Montana Law describing: jurisdiction over the child, decision-making powers, access to information, processes to follow if a parent moves, use of mediation, child support, taxes, and warnings regarding the failure to follow the plan.

However, because a Parenting Plan is an agreement on how to best-raise the children during a divorce, many parents add other provisions that help to further define roles and expectations, such as revised schedules for when children become older, expectations about supporting the other parent and other parent's family, agreements to seek out certain therapies to support the family, or rules surrounding vacations, babysitters, cell phones, smoking, etc.  And in high conflict cases, the parenting plan can designate boundaries for physical contact between the parents, who may attend the child's activities, who may access the child at school, etc, or may modify all rules so that there is zero interaction and interplay between the parents (known as "parallel parenting") in order to eliminate opportunity for conflict or exercise of power and control.

What is the difference between Joint and Primary Custody?

In Montana the concepts of Joint or Primary Custody have been replaced by the use of the terms parenting time and decision-making ability.  In general, it is assumed that both parents have equal rights to parent the child, should share equally in all but the day-to-day decisions, but that parents' "equal right" to parent does not directly translate to "equal" parenting time. Instead, a parenting schedule should be age appropriate and suit the best interests of the child. Often this will result in one parent having more parenting time during the children's younger years, increasing to closer to equally shared parenting time over time. However, even where one parent enjoys more parenting days than the other, this does not reduce the other parent's parenting rights or custody rights.  Therefore, the threat to "sue for primary custody" or the desire to implement "joint custody" are not applicable under Montana Law. A parent may be successful at becoming the primary residential parent- meaning the child resides primarily with that parent- however, this does not achieve "sole custody" or "primary custody" and both parents maintain their full abilities to make decisions, access information, request warranted changes to the plan pursuant to the rules, and to otherwise be involved in parenting their children.

However, when parents act contrary to the child's best interests (examples of which are enumerated in Montana Law, such as by jeopardizing the child's safety, committing crimes of violence, or by harassing their co-parent) then the Court may begin to assign more decision-making abilities to the non-offending parent, or may place stricter parameters on the offending parent's parenting time such as by requiring supervision, therapy, or tasks that a parent must complete in order to enjoy more parenting freedom.

How do I find out what an Age-Appropriate Parenting Plan is?

Because every family is unique, there is no template for designing an Age-appropriate parenting plan. However, there are general principles and guidelines designed to help. In Missoula, the Fourth Judicial District has published parenting plan guidelines which can be found on their Website on page 54.  Child Psychologists will also provide parents with feedback on age-appropriate schedules, or in contentious or complicated situations, parents may choose to complete a full parenting evaluation with a parenting evaluator.  Parenting plans are generally based on Attachment theory but take into account the logistics present (e.g. many parents' work schedules leave them with little choice over their parenting plan), the child's temperament, the length of time the child has been experiencing life between two homes, and the co-parents' abilities to reduce conflict and match parenting styles at both homes.  Many attorneys are well-trained in assisting parents with managing these factors to come up with an age-appropriate and workable parenting plan. 

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