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By Marsha Kline Pruett

Parenting plans are about each parent’s desire for access to his or her children and an opportunity to be involved in the activities and responsibilities of parenting. The plans are all about time – how much and when.

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By Leslie Ellen Shear

Parents who are considering moving with their children after separation or divorce, and parents deciding whether to oppose the children’s move have a lot to think about.

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Emotions run high in any child custody discussion.  When you are fighting with your soon-to-be-ex, in person or through your attorneys, that arguing adds extra pressure to the process.  When violence and abuse are already present in the relationship, there is added urgency along with a fear of you or your children being victimized.  

 

Whether you are negotiating parenting time and a custody schedule for the first time or you think an existing schedule should be reviewed, it is very important for you to tell your attorney about any abuse.  As divorce and family attorneys, we have helped many families through these situations.

First and foremost, if your spouse is abusing you and/or your children, it is critical that you get yourself to safety and follow the protocols of the Bucks and Montgomery County Protection from Abuse (PFA) procedures.

Next, an experienced attorney can help you unravel the tangle of domestic violence as it relates to your custody case.  To be clear, just because you say you are being abused does not mean the judge is going to grant you full custody or take away the other parent’s rights.  While protection and safety are of primary concern, there needs to be documented proof of abuse.  This is where an experienced attorney can help you.  

Documentation is a very important part of any abuse case and should include as much detail as you can by date.  Remember to not only include details about any physical abuse, but also emotional abuse as well.  You will need to find a safe place to store your documentation and sometimes the best place is out of your home and away from where your spouse may find it.  Sometimes your computer or phone can be safe.  We can help you put the right system in place.  Record incidents of physical abuse with a doctor (including pictures) and even with a therapist or social worker.  As you document, also make sure to tell at least one trusted confidant what is happening; this can be a friend or family member.  This level of documentation is critical so that you have a trail of proof should it ever be needed.  

As mentioned above, your safety is of utmost importance and stopping the abuse is the goal.  When your emotions run high, working through the legal process can seem tedious and a waste of time.  However, all custody issues in Montgomery and Bucks County, PA need to be resolved following a legal procedure and we can help you work through it quickly to obtain the best possible resolution.  

If you have children and are getting divorced, you will negotiate a parenting time schedule, typically called a custody agreement. This dictates the amount of time that each child will spend with each parent. It can include overnights, holidays, and special arrangements like pick-ups and birthdays. If you are divorcing with younger children, your schedule will more than likely need to be adjusted in the future to accommodate different schedules.  If you have already been divorced for a few years, you may be concerned that your custody agreement is no longer working. After all, your schedule, as well as the activity schedules of your children, have probably changed over time.  


First, as you move through your year, you may find that certain dates in the schedule need to be adjusted.  For instance, you may need to attend a work event or a wedding on a weekend when you are scheduled to have your children.  If your ex is agreeable, a simple email, phone call or text can handle these one-time changes. Sometimes, in contentious post-divorce relationships, parents feel they need to get an attorney involved in every single change.  This can ensure that there is a formal agreement to the change, but is usually not necessary.  


For more substantial changes to your custody agreement, you will want to make sure that the new plan is fair and, most importantly, includes a consultation and/or review with an attorney.  For instance, if you are taking on more nights with your children, you may be entitled to additional child support.  With more permanent changes, you should file with the court.  A handshake (or email) agreement is not enforceable all the time.  


If you have a more serious circumstance to consider, it is essential that you have legal guidance through the process.  If your ex does not show up for scheduled time and your children are continually disappointed, homework is not completed when the children are in your ex’s care, your ex suffers from alcoholism or drug abuse or is incarcerated, then the circumstances may be extreme and legal guidance is imperative.


Lastly, you may want to change your custody agreement but your ex may be opposed to doing so.  You may be changing jobs or moving or you may realize that your child’s new schedule needs to be accommodated in a different way.  If you and your ex do not get along, then you might need lawyers, or even the court, to handle the change.  If both parties do not agree…this will need to be negotiated.  You must be able to demonstrate that it is in the best interest of the child to amend the parenting time agreement.  


Regardless of the changes you need to make, your parenting time schedule can usually be adjusted.  It is critical to find a lawyer who is experienced in Bucks and/or Montgomery County who can walk you through child custody issues and any other changes that should be considered.  

When parents divorce with children, the children need a schedule when they will spend time with each parent.  Courts seem to be moving more towards a shared custody arrangement so that both parents can actively participate in the children’s lives.  A true 50/50 custody schedule is when both parents have equal overnights in a two week period.  This schedule can take many forms, from alternating weeks, to alternating every two weekdays with a long weekend, to three set nights with one parent each week and alternating one night every other week. There are many different ways to arrange it so that each parent has seven nights in a two week period.  As in any custody case, it is whatever is in the best interest of the children.  When there is a true 50/50 custody schedule, the children are able to attend school in either parent’s school district since there is no primary custodian, however, the parties have to decide or the court will decide which school district they will attend.  

The purpose of a custody order is to provide both parties with a schedule on when they have their children and no longer live in the same home. This eliminates any confusion for everyone involved, including the parents, children, teachers, coaches and others who may need to know who is supposed to pick up a child and when. This is why schools require that a custody order be on file with the school. A custody order is not only a useful tool to help everyone know when they are supposed to have the children but also it guarantees time that both parents get to spend with the child or be held in contempt. With this said, however, there are times when both parents may want to deviate from this schedule by agreement. If BOTH parties are agreeable to change anything in the custody schedule, you do not have to go back to court to do so unless you want to make it a permanent, guaranteed changed. If both parties agree to make changes, it is best but not necessary to put it in writing. It is encouraged that parties work with each other as custody orders cannot contemplate every single thing that may arise such as a wedding, party, or other event that flexibility may need to be used. Parties can always give each other extra time, makeup time, agree to switch days, etc. by agreement regardless of what the custody order says as long as both parties agree.

When it comes to holidays and custody, the courts generally will alternate the holidays so that one parent has the children in even years and the other parent has the children in odd years. Easter is usually only considered as a Sunday holiday not an overnight the night before. It is important, however, to always think about the children and parents can always design their own holiday schedule instead of leaving it up to the Courts. If both parties enjoy having Easter morning with baskets, you may want to alternate the Saturday into the Sunday. You may also want to split the day much like you with Christmas so that one parent has the night before and morning the other parent has the other half of the day into the next morning. Even children who do not have parents who are divorced are often shuffled on holidays between homes of in-laws, other relatives, etc. It is important to think about the children and what is in their best interests. When is it is not practical to share the holiday, a good alternative would be to Skype or facetime with the other party and family so that they can share in the celebration by video.

In any childs custody case, it is best if the parties design their own custody schedule so that they have more control over the personal considerations in each of their families as well as to include some days that may not be considered an official holiday for court custody purposes. When, however, communication has broken down and it is not possible to come to an agreement even on holidays, the court will often in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania have a routine method of determining holidays. In some counties, it is a pre-printed holiday list that the parties will receive. In others, it is a generally conceived concept. In most cases, the court will alternate holidays on an odd year/even year basis rotating the holiday every year so both parents will have time alternating years. For some holidays, such as Christmas, the court will usually break the holiday into two parts. One parent will have Christmas Eve until Christmas Day and the other parent will have Christmas Day until the Day after and this will alternate each year to allow both parents the opportunity to have Christmas morning every other year.

Some of the holidays that the Court often does not include are Halloween, birthdays of the children and birthdays of the parents. They often do not consider July 4th into the next day or after fireworks. They do not consider the Memorial Day or Labor Day as a full weekend. They usually do not split Thanksgiving in half which is possible if the parties agree to share the day. This is why it is so important that parents work together to communicate and agree to holidays rather than have a court decide how to divide the holidays. Sometimes one parent works on holidays and it makes sense the other parent should have the children but if you do not come to an agreement, this is not likely to happen. It is best if you are going through custody, not only to work out a schedule for your children but to really think about how your families structure and celebrate the holidays to make it best for the children.

Child custody is one of divorce’s greatest challenges. When all is said and done and the assets are distributed and the divorce is final, there are still the children of divorce that forever tie you to the other parent. Whether your children are little or grown, there will be times when you will encounter the other parent whom you are no longer married to but have children and possibly grandchildren in common with after the divorce. This can be frequent during child custody. Oftentimes, when children are little, there remains hurt feelings, resentment, possibly jealously as the other parent moves on seemingly unscathed. It may be very difficult during these times to maintain the level of civility in child custody that is critical to raise happy, successful children of divorced parents. The last thing you may want to do is have to continue to parent with this other person that you no longer love, that you resent or that continues to undermine everything that you think is best. It takes acceptance of the fact that both parents are entitled to have a loving and caring relationship with their children after a divorce in order to provide the best for your children.

One important part of treating the other parent with the respect in child custody that is needed to raise healthy children that are not constantly in the middle of conflict is gratitude. Whether the other parent is in your opinion is a good parent or a worthless excuse for a human being in your eyes, it is helpful to look at it for what that person’s existence means to you. Had you never encountered the other parent, good or bad, for one night or many, that little child or children who mean the world to you would not exist. Their unique genetic combination is only the result of having had a relationship, however, brief the encounter, with the other parent. Take the other parent out of the equation from the start and your child would not exist. If every time you have conflict with the other parent and you can go to a place of gratitude for that person for having given you one of life’s greatest gifts, your child, it becomes much easier to deal with whatever conflict you have. As much as your love your friends and your current significant, remember it was this other parent who gave you life’s greatest gift. If you look at it from the perspective of your child, you may understand the importance of having both parents involved in the child’s life, no matter how great or how little. How many parents have a relative who may have done similar things as the other parent, but they find it acceptable to still love their relative while completely trying to eradicate the other parent from the child’s life for the same things? Oftentimes, parents think of custody from their own wants and needs rather than looking at it from their child’s best interest.When you come from a place a gratitude, it helps you to make decisions that are in your child’s best interest and helps reduce the conflict that can damage children.

For more information on custody visit: /Family-Law-Divorce/Child-Custody-Visitation/ 

Oftentimes when you have a custody agreement, your agreement or order spells out specific times and meeting places for custody exchanges. Even the best crafted custody agreement, however, does not contemplate every situation that possibly could arise.  In these circumstances, you must often make a judgement call.  For example, if your child is burning up with a fever, it may not be in the best interest of your child to insist that they return to you for your designated custodial time.  You may want to consider your child and let them rest until they are up for travel.  With winter upon us, you may also find yourself required by your custody order to exchange your child in the middle of a snowstorm, or worse, blizzard.  Again, you should use your best judgement in deciding whether to follow the custody agreement.  This is why it is very important that parents be able to communicate with each other.  Oftentimes, you will need to make accommodations for the other parent.  You cannot expect a custody agreement or court order to resolve every possible scenario.  

For those parents with an ex who threatens the police or court if the custody agreement is not followed when one of these emergency circumstances arise, I would suggest that you still exercise your best judgement.  As long as it is a true emergency and you are no abusing the system and alleging your child is sick when in fact that are perfectly fine, it is not likely that you will be found in contempt but be prepared to prove it just in case. Take a photo of your child’s temperature, get a copy of the weather report for your area.  Always put the safety of your child and well being of your child first in an emergency circumstance.  That being said, it may be a good idea if the other parent misses time due to snow or an illness that you offer make up time.  The more you give, the more you get.  Mother nature does not play favorites and it could easily happen on your time.