By MEAGHAN E. HEARN
I recently met with a married couple that separated about a year ago and are preparing to finalize their separation with filing for divorce here in the District. They worked together throughout their yearlong separation to help their children – ages 8 and 5 – adjust to what they call their “new normal.” The couple’s relationship is amicable and they make a concerted effort to reach joint decisions on parenting issues by considering what is in the best interest of their children. They are fully aware, though, that as their children get older and life moves forward there will be times when tensions mount between them and their relationship to each other as parents will become strained. Their goal now is to do whatever they can to minimize the possibility of court involvement in any future parental disputes.
Many non-married parents – straight and gay – are turning to co-parenting agreements to achieve this goal. A co-parenting agreement is an agreement between parents that can set forth anything from the moral values the parents wish to instill in their child to agreed upon forms of discipline the parents will or will not use with their child. An effective agreement is drafted in a way that sets forth guidelines for parents to follow that will assist in avoiding and resolving conflicts as parents encounter the inevitable changes life brings. A well thought out and drafted agreement should always provide parents with methods to resolve conflicts without court intervention.
Co-parenting agreements may be entered when your child is born or after you and your co-parent have separated or divorced. It goes without saying, however, that having these important discussions and drafting an agreement before conflict arises in your relationship with your child’s other parent is often easier than finding that common ground when parents are already at odds with each other.
The beauty of co-parenting agreements is that they can include whatever parents believe is important in raising their child. Agreements typically include clauses detailing which parent will make important decisions regarding their child’s health, education, and welfare, the financial obligations of each parent to the child, and physical custody or visitation schedules that the parents will follow during the school year and summer months. A co-parenting agreement can even include provisions on religious up-bringing, extracurricular activities, geographical restrictions related to a parent’s residence, parameters on where a parent may or may not travel with the child, or even when a parent can introduce their child to a new significant other.
Part of what makes co-parenting agreements so appealing is that they are adaptable to change. An effective co-parenting agreement will set forth factors that parents should consider when making decisions related to their child, as well as the specific process the parents will follow when conflict arises between them. These agreements can also include clauses requiring parents to participate in mediation or arbitration when they are unable to reach an agreement as to what is in the best interest of their child. Some co-parenting agreements even give final decision making authority to a third party such as a social worker, therapist or similar healthcare provider, when parents are simply unable to reach a decision themselves.
In same-sex relationships, these agreements can be of paramount importance and can often be critical in establishing a non-biological parent’s relationship to his or her child. If one or both parents reside in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage or does not permit same-sex second parent adoptions, these agreements can provide a layer of protection to the non-biological parent by explicitly setting forth the parent’s rights and obligations to his or her non-biological child. Although a co-parenting agreement is not legally binding in these states, the current nation-wide judicial shift in recognizing the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons indicates that judges would now be more willing to consider these agreements as evidence of not only the non-biological parent’s relationship to the child, but also the parents’ shared goals in raising their child.
The importance of developing a parenting plan and memorializing it in a legally enforceable document before conflict arises between you and your co-parent cannot be overstated. It will not only allow you and your co-parent to develop a greater understanding of your respective roles and duties as they relate to your child, but it will help your family – as a whole – navigate your “new normal.”
Meaghan E. Hearn is an attorney at Ackerman Brown, PLLC. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.