Creating a parenting plan when you have a high conflict ex-spouse is going to be harder and need more details than if you were going through a traditional divorce. A high conflict ex-spouse will disagree with you at every step of the way just because they can or to continue to exert control over you and your children since they are no longer able to through your marriage. Many high conflict divorces include a party who is narcissistic, abusive (physically or emotionally), and/or controlling.
If your ex-spouse is high conflict, then you will need to approach your parenting plan differently – with the 4 D’s of a high conflict divorce: Disengage, Decide, Deliver, and Document.
- Disengage: This will be difficult to do at first, but with practice, this step will come easier. By disengaging yourself, or limiting (or better yet, removing) your emotional standpoint from the equation, you will reduce how and when your ex-spouse triggers your anger or hurt feelings. By doing this, you can make communication easier and more effective.
- Decide: As previously stated, you will need a far more detailed parenting plan than others. Consider all possible aspects of child rearing and decision making, big or small, and include them in your proposed plan. You will have to decide which parent will take care of what and how you both will have to work together when necessary. It is likely that your ex-spouse will reject your plan. Do not take no for an answer and require them to create a counter proposal.
- Deliver: Any and all communication should be done as formally and business like. Avoid face to face communication, as this is where emotion is more likely to take hold. Use text messages, emails, or online communication programs such as Our Family Wizard or Custody X Change. Keep messages to 4 sentences or less and child focused. Keep out any opinion or emotional words (“I think” or “It hurts when you…”); your ex-spouse will likely latch on to those words and respond to only that rather than the message as a whole.
- Document: Individuals who are the high conflict person in a divorce are usually a different person when attorneys, family members, or a judge is around. They can be charismatic when they need to be so you will need to be prepared with actual facts and occurrences of their high conflict behavior. Keep copies of emails, text messages, or communication from online programs like Our Family Wizard or Custody X Change in which you are harassed or the high conflict parent refused to follow the parenting plan. Include the date, time, and behavior that occurred. Record this for every instance it occurs to establish a pattern of high conflict behavior.
Now that you know the 4 D’s to remember in creating and implementing your high conflict divorce parenting plan, below are several elements of a parenting plan that you should consider. Keep in mind that with some high conflict individuals you may be able to gain the upper hand in this area by relinquishing the home, car, alimony, or reduce the child support.
- Legal Custody: Includes who has the decision-making capabilities in regard to religion, education, emergency and non-emergency medical decisions. This can be awarded to a single parent but is commonly granted to both. You should provide your preferences for what religion they child should be raised with, which school they should attend (private, charter, magnet, or local public school), and how or when the child should be taken to the doctor, dentist, or other medical check-up. If costs are associated with any of these aspects, outline who the responsible party will be.
High Conflict Consideration: This title is extremely important for a high conflict parent. Making major decisions with you under shared legal custody) means sharing control. Be prepared for a battle for any topic related to this. When forming your plan be a specific as possible so that the high conflict parent has strict rules and guidelines to follow (and be sure to follow them yourself or the high conflict parent will attack you for going “off book”).
- Residential or Physical Custody: This is will be the parent whom the child lives with the majority of the time. This address is typically used to determine which school the child will be zoned for, unless otherwise stated.
High Conflict Consideration: Like legal custody, this too could be a major battle.
- Visitation: This should be as explicit as possible so that a police officer or other legal representative could understand where and with whom the child should be with at any given time. Keep in mind school holidays (including half days), holidays observed on Mondays, traditional (federal) holidays, and summer vacation from school. You can also include a stipulation to be notified if the child will be staying the night at a location other than the listed residence of the parent – that way you know where your child will be even if they are not with you.
High Conflict Consideration: High conflict personalities will use vague visitation plans to accuse you of having the children when you shouldn’t.
- Holidays, Summer Break, or Other Time Off of School: Specify with whom the child will be with for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, or other religiously or federally observed holidays. Are they split in half or alternate between parent each year? Will the child be with you on your birthday and with the other parent on theirs? If school is out for a teacher work day or a half day, who will the child be with (the parent according to the visitation plan, daycare, or other?) The visitation section of your parenting plan should also specify who gets to pick their vacation days first or if it is a specific set of dates for each parent. Will the child go to summer camp or stay with family while either parent is working? Who is responsible for the cost and transportation to summer camp?
- Child’s Birthday: Specify if the child will be with the parent based on the visitation schedule or if the child’s birthday will be split or alternate each year between parents. Should there be one shared birthday party or separate parties – and who is responsible for the cost?
- Cancellations / Emergencies: You are allowed to include a timeframe to be given notice if there will be a cancellation in visitation in order for you to properly arrange child care. In the event of an emergency, you may not get an advanced notice – but it is still good to include this in your parenting plan.
- The Right of First Refusal: The Right of First Refusal means that if you are unable to have the child during your specified visitation time that you must first ask your ex-spouse to care for the child rather than resorting to a sitter or other family member. And vice versa – your ex-spouse should consider you, prior to a sitter or other family member.
High Conflict Consideration: Think deeply on this aspect of the parenting plan before choosing to include it. Will you, or your ex-spouse, abide by this consideration consistently? If you make a 10-minute trip to the grocery store and leave your kids with family members who are over for dinner – will your ex-spouse accuse you of failing to offer the Right of First Refusal? If this will create more issues than to help resolve them, then it is best to exclude this right and state instead that the parent who needs to cancel visitation may opt for a babysitter, family, or the other spouse as they see fit. Although, you may prefer to be given the chance to be with your children, if your ex-spouse does not follow the Right of First Refusal or claims that you are not, then the additional conflict that arises from this issue is not worth the extra battles it brings. For peace of mind, you may stipulate that the person they leave your child with must have a clean background check (e.g. no Felonies or domestic abuse charges) and a clean driving record (e.g. DUI, reckless driving).
- Make Up Time: It is not common to include the chance to “make up” visitation as the make-up visit would take away time already granted to the other parent. It is not recommended to offer this in exchange for your child to partake in an event that happens on the other parent’s time (e.g. friend’s birthday party). It can convolute the visitation schedule and create confusion.
High Conflict Consideration: Depending on the age of the child, you could advise them to ask their other parent to take them to the event they wish to attend or you could email the other parent about the upcoming event. Although it may be likely for the other parent to reject this idea as the event would take away some of their time, they also may agree to it to avoid looking like the “bad” or “mean” parent. You may get an angry email about putting them in such a position but remember your 4 D’s before responding.
- Exchange Location and Travel to Location: In most cases of a high conflict divorce, it is in the best interest of all parties to meet at a neutral location. If a confrontation is likely, meeting at a police station can discourage such actions from occurring. In addition to the address of the meeting location be sure to specify the time of day the meet should occur and guidelines if either parent should be running late. How long is the parent with the child obligated to wait for the other parent to arrive for pick up? If the parent who is with the child is going to be late, how much of a notice should they provide? If no notice is provided and they cannot be contacted, how long must the other parent wait before involving legal representatives? Can other family members perform the pickup/drop off?
- Child Care: Child care is common for many families and if your children attend child care be sure to include what days and the time frame that the child will be at the facility. Include which parent is responsible for pick up and drop off and if there are any special stipulations about other family members performing pick up or drop off. Who will be the primary point of contact if your child becomes ill and needs to go home? Which parent is responsible for taking them home (or to the doctor)? Child care can also be costly so be sure to include how the cost should be split between the parents. Also, provide the child care facility with any court documents that restrict certain persons from picking up your child or the outline of who is allowed to pick up and when.
- Moving Locally or Out-Of-State: When it comes to custody laws and moving, Florida law defines relocation as a parent moving their permanent residence more than 50 miles from their original address. Addition restrictions or allowances may be made in your parenting plan that specifies the terms of the move and the new custody arrangements should it occur. Typically, if a move is not imminent at the time of the divorce, this section will stipulate that the relocating parent must get permission to move and form a new custody arrangement prior to moving.
High Conflict Consideration: An unplanned move on your part can greatly upset the balance of power the high conflict parent has become accustom to. It is unlikely that they will immediately grant permission for you to move and reestablish a new parenting plan. Be prepared to file a petition to relocate with the court (we can help you file one) and have a new visitation schedule drawn up that is fair to both parties, including compensation for travel. If you are the one moving further, you may be responsible for more of the costs of transportation.
- Vacation / Travel (Including International Travel): Break down the vacation times available (summer break, holiday breaks, spring break, etc.) and how each parent will be provided time with the child. Will the breaks alternate between parents every year? It is common for each parent to be granted two weeks of vacation time in the summer (to take the child on a trip or enroll the child in a camp) that overrides the regular visitation. Stipulate which parent will get to choose their vacation time first and how much travel is allowed (local, out of state or even international travel).
- Parenting Methods: Odds are that you and your high conflict ex-spouse have very different ways of raising your children. If you are able to write this much detail in your plan you can cover topics such as requirements or restrictions of child discipline, if and when the child can be left home alone (if so, for how long), rules that should be the same between households (curfew, homework, punishment for misbehavior, etc.), and permissions for the child to have a cell phone or computer (and who is responsible for paying for it).
High Conflict Consideration: You may find that your ex-spouse will not agree to raising your children with the same set of rules you would like to use. They may even claim you are being too controlling over the child or lacking in parental guidance. If you know that conflict is all you will get from your ex-spouse over these topics then you can opt for parallel parenting – in which the child follows the rules set by the parent with whom they are currently with. Dad’s rules stay at dad’s house and mom’s rules stay at mom’s house.
- Communication Methods: High conflict ex-spouses are not known for their communication skills and many times verbal communication turns into a verbal attack. Outline in detail how communication should be handled (texts, emails, or other online communication program). What about in the event of an emergency? How early/late can communication occur? Communication doesn’t just occur between you and your ex-spouse, your children are involved too. How often and what time can a parent call and speak with the child when they are with the other parent.
High Conflict Consideration: Your high conflict ex may exert control over you and your child by listening in on your phone calls. Add stipulations that they child should be allowed to speak privately in another room if you feel that this is necessary.
- Child Well Being: Some high conflict spouses may have documented circumstances of abuse. If the child’s welfare is a concern when they are with the high conflict parent, then you will need to create your parenting plan so that the child is protected at all times from further abuse. Your attorney at the Law Office of Hernandez and Smith can assist you with creating a specialized parenting plan in this case.
- Parent Well Being: Find time to include restrictions and guidelines for handling harassment conducted by the other parent. If your high conflict ex-spouse has a history of harassing or stalking you, or even showing up at your m unannounced, how would you like for these situations to be handled from this point forward? If there is an Order of Protection in place but visitation is allowed, then you will want to be sure to consider all possible points of contact and how to best protect yourself and your children. Your attorney can help you to make the necessary arrangements.
- As Your Child Ages: As your children get older, their needs and wants will change and these changes can greatly affect visitation schedules. Medical or dental cost may change if the child needs braces or other treatments; school schedules change and when a child is able to drive, they have more freedom to come and go when they want or they may get a job for themselves. This freedom may affect the visitation schedule. It will be difficult to foresee every circumstance possible and to have a rule or guideline for it. Reviewing and rewriting your parenting plan every 3 to 5 years may be a more effective way to keep up with the times and your growing child.