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Child Custody
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Elements of the Standard Custody Agreement

If you have minor children and are getting a divorce, you'll have to reach a custody agreement. The standard custody agreement answers several key questions:

  • Who has legal custody of the children?
  • What is the visitation schedule?
  • How will the cost of medical care, child care and schooling be split between parents?
  • How will changes be made to the custody agreement?

Ideally, you'll be able to reach an agreement with your spouse by negotiating one-on-one or with the assistance of lawyers or a mediator. This plan is then presented to a judge who reviews it and either approves it or asks for modifications before approving it. Once the judge approves your custody agreement, you and your spouse are then legally required to follow it. If you're unable to negotiate a custody agreement, then a judge will make the decisions for you.

Items to Include in the Standard Custody Agreement

The standard custody agreement (also known as a parenting plan) has several essential elements:

Who has legal custody of the children? There are several standard types of custody arrangements. Sole custody gives one parent both legal and physical custody of a child. Joint custody means that parents share physical and/or legal custody of the child. Split custody occurs when the custody of multiple children is split between the parents. All standard custody agreements will describe who has custody of the children and what type of custody they have.

What is the visitation schedule? Your custody agreement should also describe when your child will spend time with the non-custodial parent, or how the child will divide time between parents with joint custody. Consider where the child will spend time on school days, weekends, during school vacations and on major holidays.

How will you handle decisions about education, religious upbringing and medical care? Are both parents involved in these decisions, or does the parent with sole custody bear the responsibility?

How will the child's expenses be shared between the parents and how will you make decisions about significant expenses? You need to consider issues of insurance, medical care, child care and education. For example, which parent's health insurance will carry the children? If one parent wants the child to attend private school, who is responsible for paying the cost of tuition? You should also consider which parent is entitled to claim the child as a dependant for tax purposes.

What rules does each parent promise to abide by? For example, do both parents want to attend school conferences and be involved in medical decisions? Does each parent agree to notify the other if they are taking the child out of the state? You should outline your expectations of one another in your custody agreement.

Can the custodial parent move out of the school district or local region? We live in a mobile society, and it's not uncommon for people to move across town or across the country for personal and professional reasons. Does your custody agreement address relocation issues?

How will the parents communicate with one another? Consider how you will communicate with one another on day-to-day custody details, but also in emergency situations. For example, how do you contact your former spouse if you want to change the weekly scheduled visitation? How much notice is required to request changes? How do you communicate with your spouse if there's an emergency? How quickly must one parent notify the other parent in the event of an emergency?

How will disputes be resolved or what happens if a parent wants to change the custody agreement? A custody agreement should be, above all else, realistic. Disagreements can and will arise. A parent's personal and professional situation may change. A thorough custody agreement acknowledges that disputes occur and serious life changes may affect the custody agreement. Your agreement should explain how disputes will be resolved and how proposed changes will be handled.