How To Develop A Parenting Plan, And Is It Needed?

Updated October 10, 2022by ReGain Editorial Team

Co-parenting with someone you're no longer in a relationship with can be unsettling, chaotic, confusing, and disruptive to your family. If you go into the situation unprepared, you might be putting your child's well-being in jeopardy. You also open the possibility for someone else making decisions about your child's raising that you strongly disagree with. The good news is that there is a way to set a positive course for co-parenting. It's called a parenting plan.

What Is A Parenting Plan?

Co-Parenting Can Be Full Of Conflicts And Challenges

The plan can be very detailed to minimize problems later on. You and your ex can sit down together and craft the parenting plan together.

Do You Need A Parenting Plan?

Many divorced or separated parents feel that a parenting plan is unnecessary. They might feel that they don't need a formal agreement if they've split under amicable terms. Others may live in different states and assume that there will be very little interaction with the non-custodial ex. Some people who have not gone through the formality of marriage see no reason to set down a parenting plan on paper, either. However, in most cases, a parenting plan can be very beneficial to everyone concerned.

Legal Requirements

Some states require that anyone with a child or children getting a divorce or separating must have a parenting plan. If so, you'll need to work on the main considerations of child custody, child support, and visitation.

Typically, this is done in a meeting with you, your ex, and your lawyers or mediators. If you don't have a parenting plan in place as required, the judge will ensure that a plan is made before a divorce is granted.


Some states don't require a parenting plan at all. Others require it for divorce and separation, but not for couples that have never lived together. You can still make a parenting plan even if the law doesn't require you to do so. There are several advantages to having one in place.

Having A Say In Decisions Made About Your Child By Your Ex

Without a parenting plan, the parent who has the child makes all the decisions about the child whenever the child is with them. As the parent who is away from their child, you have no say in what happens while the child is away from you.

With a parenting plan, you have a chance to come to agreements about how the child will be cared for and treated before the situation arises. The parent who has the child might still do something not in the agreement, but you can hold them accountable for breaking your agreement if they do.

Avoiding Unpleasant Surprises

When a parent has physical custody of a child, they can easily decide what the other parent doesn't approve of. This can lead to some unpleasant surprises when the child is returned to that parent. For example, one parent decided to discipline their child by shaving his head. The child returned to the custodial parent's home with no hair in the dead of a bitterly cold winter. If they had worked out a discipline plan during the divorce, this might not have happened.

Increasing Efficiency Of Communications

Having a plan in place provides a shortcut to making routine decisions. Rather than having to negotiate which parent gets the child on the holidays, you already know. Instead of going into all the details of what you want the child's home environment to be like each time they leave, you can emphasize that you want the other parent to follow the parenting plan.

Avoiding Fights About What You And Your Ex Agreed To Do

Because the parenting plan is a formal written document, the agreements you make are recorded for future reference. You or your ex can't say they didn't know you wanted something done a certain way. They can't deny the agreement to pay child support. They can't get by pretending that they didn't know what you wanted. Without a plan in place, you and your ex might spend a lot of time-fighting over who said what and what you agreed to do.

Essential Parts Of The Plan

Every parenting plan should cover certain essentials. In some states, what you have to have in the plan is dictated by law. For instance, all plans are usually required to include agreements about custody, visitation, and child support obligations. The following components should be put into your parenting plan, whether you are required to make one or not.

Physical And Legal Custody

Of course, you need to agree on who will have custody and put it into writing. Physical custody refers to who the child will live with, either part-time for joint custody or full-time for sole custody.

Legal custody determines who has responsibility for making important decisions for the child, such as medical and religious decisions and decisions about the child's education. Although you could consult on all these decisions, it's best to have one parent with primary responsibility so that the decision doesn't have to be put off until you can get together to discuss it.

Living Arrangements And Visitation By Schedule

You'll need to make a schedule of the time periods when each parent will have the child. For example, one parent may have the child on the weekdays and every other weekend, and the other parent might have the child only on off weekends.

You'll also need to include where the child goes during school vacations. You'll need to determine where the child will be on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. This can be done on a rotating schedule to have the child every other year for important occasions.

The schedule must also work visitation in the parenting plan. A noncustodial parent typically has the child for certain days of the week, month, or year. This all needs to be included in the plan.

In some cases, the parent may only be allowed to visit with the child in public places with someone else in attendance. This can happen for several reasons, such as if that parent is a sex offender or has tried to or threatened to kidnap the child in the past.

Financial Obligations

Child support is one of the primary reasons for parenting plans. Both parents need to know if, how much, and when the other parent will make child support payments. They also need to agree on who will take care of financial responsibilities, such as bills for the child's medical care, school tuition and supplies, and fees for their extracurricular activities.

If each parent could potentially claim the child on their IRS tax return by IRS rules, it's good to have a plan in place that stipulates who will claim them in that scenario.

Transportation Agreements

Transportation can also present problems if you haven't worked out the costs and logistics of it in advance. You'll need to agree who will get the child to and from visitation, for instance.

Safety Precautions

Often, one parent is more cautious than the other. So, you'll need to make agreements about safety issues. One essential decision is how a young child is transported in the car. This is particularly important if the parents live in different states with different car seats and child restraints.


If you don't want the other parent to move away without warning, it's important to include what procedure you want them to follow before moving to a new residence. They should notify you, of course, but how far in advance do you expect to know? Also, many parenting plans include a stipulation that requires the parents to renegotiate the parenting plan if a parent's residence changes.

Agreements About Changing The Plan

How and when will the plan be changed? This is a question you need to answer the plan. If your child is very young when you draw up the first plan, you might want to renegotiate the plan one or more times as they get older and have different age-based needs. One parent may find that they're unhappy with the plan and want to change it. That's another reason you need to make provisions and requirements for changing the plan as needed.

Helpful Additions To The Basic Plan

In addition to the essential parts of the parenting plan described above, you may find several other components extremely helpful. Some of them depend on the situation and the child's age. Others are helpful in most situations.

Visiting Extended Family

It's good to include expectations about the child's visits with extended family such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Some parents are happy for the other parent to take the child to extended family members' homes whenever they like. Others prefer to set an exact schedule of when these visits will take place.

Visitation For Other Than Family

You might also want to discuss when and under what circumstances the child can visit people other than family. You can either allow the child to visit whomever the other parent wants them to visit or mention specific people who can or can't visit with the child. Non-family visits can include time spent with the child's friends, friends of the ex's family, or others.

Child Meeting Ex's Dates

Many parents become angry when their ex is too casual about introducing the child to the people they date. There's a good way to avoid that, and it starts with talking about it during parenting plan negotiations.

You might want to set it up so that you meet the date before your child does. Or, you might set a length of time the ex has to be in a relationship with someone before they're allowed to introduce them to the child, although this can be extremely difficult to know for certain. Another option is not to allow the child to meet a date unless you or your ex is in a long-term relationship.

Sleeping Arrangements

Most parents want to know whether the child will have a room of their own with both parents. They want to know if the child is allowed to sleep anywhere else. For example, some parents believe it's fine for a young child to regularly sleep in the parent's bed, but others don't go along with the idea that the family bed is a good choice.

Sometimes, sleeping arrangements are addressed in the child and family services system. Children are typically required to have their bed, to not sleep in a room with an opposite-gender child after a certain age, and in some cases, to have their bedroom at a certain age. Any agreements you make should follow those rules.

Diet And Medications

You can also include diet and medication choices in the plan. You might want your child to be on a specific doctor-approved eating plan and exercise routine. You might prefer that they don't have certain foods known to trigger allergies in some children.

Doctor-prescribed medications might seem like an obvious point of easy agreement. However, parents often disagree about treatments their child's doctor prescribes. One example is medications for ADHD or psychiatric disorders like anxiety or depression. If you believe your child needs to follow their doctor's recommendations to take any medications, you need to put that into the plan.

Vaccinations can also be a source of contention. There have been many arguments in the media that vaccinations are dangerous and might cause problems like autism or seizures. You need to agree with your ex as to whether your child will receive immunizations, and if so, which ones and when.

Preferred Discipline

Discipline is an important part of parenting, but different people have vastly different ideas about the proper ways to discipline a child. You must mention in your plan which disciplinary tactics you agree with, which you are opposed to, and what will happen if one parent doesn't follow the disciplinary plan.

Piercings And Tattoos

Teenagers often want to get piercings or tattoos. A parent might even take an infant to get their ears pierced. Whether you're opposed to body art or want your child to have it as soon as possible, if it's an issue for you at all, you need to include it in the plan.

Technology Use

Most children spend an incredible amount of time on their cell phones, laptops, tablets, video game consoles, and other electronic devices if they aren't limited and monitored. This is one part of the parenting plan that probably needs to be adjusted as the child gets older.


In addition to technology use, you may want to limit the types of entertainment they're allowed to engage in. Are there any games you don't want them to play? Do you want to set a limit on what types of movies they watch? Do you want to allow them to go to events like music festivals? Whether you do or not, if you feel strongly about these forms of entertainment, it's best to put them into the plan.

Expected Activities For Children

If you want your child to be involved with activities before and after school, on weekends, or during school vacations, you need to be specific about what types of activities you want to require them to do.

For example, you might want to require them to go to religious activities and services. If they've been developing a skill such as playing music or dancing, you might want to require that they are taken to practices and performances and required to practice between times.


Do you want your child to be at your or your ex's home at a certain time each evening? If so, include it in the plan. Be sure to account for your child's need for sleep as well as social interactions. Also, you'll probably need to adjust this for age later on.

How To Develop A Parenting Plan

Now that you know what a parenting plan is and what types of things can be included in it, you might wonder how to make it happen. While it's true that some parents can be very difficult to negotiate with, there are a few things you can do to make the process run more smoothly.

Set Up A Meeting With Your Ex For This Specific Purpose

I don't think you can hash out an agreement on the spur of the moment or when family members are around. You need to set up a meeting in a neutral place for the sole purpose of drawing up a parenting plan. 

Decide What You Want To Include Before The Meeting

When you agree to meet and go to the meeting, take some time to think about what's most important to you. Then, make a list of the things you want to include. Prioritize the list and think about what you're willing to compromise on and what is non-negotiable.

Enter The Discussion With A Positive Attitude

Too many parents go into these meetings feeling that they're defeated before they begin. They might feel that no matter how they approach the issues, the other parent will disagree. While you probably know the worst about your ex's attitudes, going in feeling that there's no hope of coming to a satisfying agreement is counterproductive to the process.

Instead, go in with the attitude that you have a chance to work out important issues to give your child a better life than they would have without an agreement. It probably won't be easy, but parents can work out a plan to live within most cases.

Be Assertive

People who want to develop a parenting plan often fail to come up with a satisfying result if they're aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive. Aggressiveness amplifies disagreements and leads to wider divisions. If you're passive, you'll likely give up your parenting choices easily, even on the issues that are most important to you. There's no place for passive-aggressive behavior in such negotiations, either, because it confuses the issues and is usually seen as a personal attack.

When you're assertive, you don't back down easily, and you insist on being heard and your ideas considered. By being assertive, you can increase your chances of getting the plan you want without damaging the co-parenting relationship with your ex. In this and any negotiation, it's important to be assertive throughout.

Getting Support Before, During, And After Making The Parenting Plan

Co-Parenting Can Be Full Of Conflicts And Challenges

When you're going through a divorce, deciding what will happen with your children can be a very stressful part of the process. You want your child to be parented in the way you feel is best. At the same time, you might not want to take on every responsibility of raising the child. At times, you might feel like you're walking a tightrope as you work with your ex to decide the fate of your child.

It's important to find support for yourself during the negotiations for a parenting plan. A counselor from Regain can help you in many ways to prepare for making a parenting plan and carrying it out, and staying calm and sane while you do it. Divorce and separation are difficult, but they don't have to destroy your world. With the right help and support, you can set your course for a brighter future for you and your child.

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