Can Your Parenting Plan Be Too Detailed?

There's no doubt that a lack of detail in custody agreements and parenting plans can send parents back to court seeking clarification. To avoid this, some parents try to envision every possible contingency that might arise, and specify exactly what must and must not happen in a certain situation. Then they congratulate themselves that their ex will not be able to find any "wiggle room" in the agreement.

The trouble with that is, neither will they—and sometimes wiggle room is a good thing for both parties. We've got some real-life stories of how being overly specific in your parenting plan can come back to bite you, and some tips for making sure that you have the right amount of detail to make your parenting plan work for you.

Too-Detailed Parenting Plans Gone Wrong

One issue about which divorcing or separating parents are often concerned is how soon the other parent will introduce the children to a new romantic interest of theirs. In one family we know, the parents agreed that under no circumstances whatsoever would a parent introduce the child to a new partner until the relationship was at least six months old. The mother, in particular, was proud of including this provision.

Girl with Tap ShoesUnfortunately for her, one Wednesday night, she had her boyfriend over for dinner while her ex had their son. The father called the mother saying, "Sally forgot her tap shoes and needs to come to the house to pick it up." Mom was so worried about the possibility of Sally seeing the boyfriend's car in the driveway or meeting him within that six-month window that she refused, and Dad ended up accusing her of not being flexible or willing to see her child!

In another case, a divorcing couple agreed that, for the sake of the children, they would each maintain a home within a certain limited distance from each other until the youngest child, who was in kindergarten, reached the age of 18. This was the idea of the children's father, who was concerned that his ex-wife would move several hundred miles away to be closer to her parents. Unfortunately for Dad, he met and fell in love with a woman who lived and worked 90 miles away from him and who could not easily relocate. Although he wanted to marry his new girlfriend, he was bound by the agreement to maintain a home near his ex-wife, and far from his intended bride.

How to Make Parenting Plans Work for You and Your Kids

The key to success is finding a balance between specificity and flexibility, which is easier said than done. Rather than identifying rigid positions (e.g. "parents must live within ten miles of each other,"), it may be better to strive for provisions that identify and serve interests (e.g. "We believe it's important for our children to see both parents regularly, and will maintain residences that allow us to easily carry out our scheduled parenting time.")

Using language like this lets you say what you think is important without tying you down to one singular path to achieving that goal. It's also important to talk to your attorney about what your goals are. He or she can help you explore creative ways to achieve those goals without destroying the flexibility that you might need in the future. Your attorney can also suggest, and help avoid, undesirable outcomes that you haven't considered

Last, but not least, it's important to be honest with yourself. Do you want a certain provision in your parenting time agreement to protect your children, or to punish your ex? If it's the latter, don't be too hard on yourself, but be willing to change course. It's natural, especially if your ex has wronged you, to want to make their life a little more difficult. Just remember that your agreement binds you as it does them, and that you could find yourself on the receiving end of the pain. Your parenting time agreement should be detailed enough to provide you with guidance, and flexible enough to allow for real life to happen without unfairly punishing parents or kids.

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