As the snow melts and the days warm, many people are turning their attention to summer vacation planning. It can be a big job requiring plenty of advance planning for many families. For parents who share custody of children, it can be an even bigger job that requires even more planning.
Probably because of the break in the usual routine that comes with them, holidays and summer vacations frequently are an impetus for families to renegotiate shared custody arrangements. These occasional renegotiations are important because the children’s needs are paramount — and subject to frequent change.
When working through custody issues initially, parents and courts base decisions primarily on what is best for the child and secondarily on what works for both parents. They often don’t anticipate changes in life circumstances, and over the years, both your child’s and your needs change.
What works best for an infant, for example, may not be what works best for a pre-schooler, and the needs of a fourth-grader will differ from those of a teen. Similarly, parents may move, marry other partners or change work schedules.
Obviously, communication and compromise will be key to successful negotiations. If you can work out something together, you’ll likely reach a far more desirable outcome than if a court or judge decides for you. As you enter these discussions, the following guidelines can help:
- Plan ahead. It may take weeks or months to negotiate a new arrangement, so whether it’s a special holiday or a special vacation, begin talking to your children’s other parent as soon as you anticipate a need for changes to the original order.
- Approach discussions amicably. Even though your relationship is over, you will always have a connection through your children. Custody discussions should focus on what’s best for your children; not on punishing the other parent for perceived or past injustices or rehashing old problems.
- Remember your children’s needs come first. Consider what’s best for your children and let that guide your discussion.
- Be flexible. Acknowledge that all parties involved in the negotiations have changing needs and schedules. By remaining open-minded and flexible, you may find an even better arrangement than what you’ve had in the past.
- Put your agreement in writing. When you reach a new arrangement, write it out in a modification agreement that can be added to your original orders. If you’re traveling internationally with your children, you’ll need to bring that document along.
- Understand that if you can’t reach an agreement together, someone else will do it for you. If you can’t work out custody issues on your own, your first step is to go to mediation. The mediator will help you work though the sticking points and hopefully reach a new agreement.
If mediation doesn’t work, you will need to go back to court. In that case, you cede decisions about your children’s schedules and your own to a court, reducing the likelihood that either parent will get what he or she wants.
When your children do spend time with you, be sure to facilitate and even encourage interaction with the other parent, especially if they’ll be spending an extended time apart. Also, don’t discuss disputes with or in front of the children, and don’t place children in a position where they have to choose sides. Following the golden rule will help you maintain a spirit of cooperation and teamwork with their other parent and enhance your odds for a more enjoyable vacation and co-parenting experience.
By Brian Weber, Family Law Attorney at Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC. For a family law attorney, call him at 608-784-5678.