When parents do not, or will not, both live in the same household with their children, the courts want parents to explain how they are going to make decisions for their children, when each of them is going to exercise parenting time, and how they are going to financially support their children. The terms are documented in a Parenting Plan. If parents cannot agree, a judge will enter orders about how decisions will be made for raising minor children, when minor children will spend time with each of their parents, and what amount of child support each will contribute.
Judges consider two kinds of decisions. Some need to be made on a day-to-day basis, like what children will eat, what they will wear, what time they will go to bed, and what household chores they are responsible for. Such day-to-day decisions are the sole domain of the parent in whose house the children are when those decisions need to be made. The other kind of decisions, considered major life decisions, generally include where children will go to school, what religious tradition(s) they will be raised in, what extra-curricular/athletic activities they will participate in, and what courses of non-emergency healthcare they will receive. For individual families, other decisions, like those related to driving or dating or body art (tattoos, piercings, etc.) may also be defined as major decisions, with parents specifying how those decisions will be made.
Joint decision making requires that both parents have input into reaching mutually agreed-upon major decisions. Joint decision making is often chosen for all major life decisions, but may be specified for fewer than all, with final decision making authority vested in one parent or the other for specified areas of major decision making.
A Parenting Plan also needs to provide for a dispute resolution mechanism parents will use if they cannot reach mutual agreement in an area of major decision making that requires it. Mediation is frequently specified, and if mediation is not successful in resolving the impasse, resort to the courts for a hearing and judge-rendered decision on the disputed issue may be specified.
Parenting Time Schedules
Colorado’s courts and family law judges want to encourage strong relationships between children and each of their parents. Strong relationships require that children spend time with each of their parents, thus the courts’ interest in parenting schedules specifying how parents are each going to be afforded time with their children and vice versa. Parenting time schedules can be as detailed or as relaxed as particular parents and children need them to be.
Appropriate parenting time schedules should take many factors into account, including the time available for parents and children to spend together given parental employment, health, and other time commitments, and children’s health, their involvement in school and extra-curricular activities and sports, their interests, their jobs, and time they want to spend with their friends. Appropriate parenting time schedules may need to honor traditions in the celebrations of holidays throughout the year, as well as the need to develop new traditions.
Parents need to consider many things in devising sustainable parenting time schedules: whether the same parenting schedule will work on a year ‘round basis, or whether a different schedule is needed when school is not in session, and how children will be transported if they are not old enough to drive. In thinking through how holidays will be shared, parents need to define when each holiday begins and ends. Does Easter begin on Easter morning, or on the Saturday night before, and in either case, at what time does “Easter Holiday Parenting Time” begin and at what time does it end? Is ”Memorial Day” just Monday, or is it a full weekend, and again, at what time does the Memorial Day Holiday Parenting Time begin and at what time does it end? The same questions apply to Labor Day and to Thanksgiving Holiday Parenting Time. Does Spring Break include the weekend before or the weekend after the five days school is not in session? Does it include both weekends? Thinking through the details of holidays and reaching specific agreements will go a long way toward avoiding realizations that parents did not have the same understandings about what constitutes a given holiday, and to avoiding Holiday Parenting Time crises.
Parents can deviate from what they memorialize in their Parenting Plans as particular and special circumstances arise – like unexpected opportunities to spend time with extended family members who visit from out of town – by mutual agreement in advance, which it may be wise to memorialize in writing, including either text or e-mail. The written terms of Parenting Plans provide a basis for courts to enforce agreements in the event that either party fails to observe terms that were agreed to or court-ordered.