If you are divorcing with children or are going through a paternity action, a parenting plan will be established and ratified by the Court. The Court’s ratification makes the parenting plan a Court order that a Court can enforce through contempt.

However, quite often when a parenting plan is first established during the original proceeding, it is either a product of a successful formal or informal mediation or judicial decision-making.

Given the emotionally charged turmoil that the parents usually go through during a divorce or a paternity action, parenting plans often reflect a “rushed job” with little or no customization. Although Florida’s standard parenting plans do contain provisions on a wide variety of parenting issues, it is always worthwhile for the parents to tailor their parenting plan to their family’s unique circumstances.

After all, though the parents are no longer together, they will still remain the parents of their children and will still be charged with the responsibility of taking care of their children.

The key to making co-parenting a success post-divorce or post-separation is by having the parents learn to communicate effectively both with each other and with their children.

Although Florida’s parenting plans do contain boilerplate provisions on communication between the parents and the parents and the children, the standard language may not work for every family. Therefore, it is always best if parents infuse the standard provisions with sufficient detail that will actually make communication effective for their family. After all, effective communication is the bedrock for positive co-parenting and a great parent-child relationship.

Part of that effective communication is having the parents learn to communicate with each other in a civil manner outside the children’s hearing range. The post-divorce/post-paternity time is a time for transition for both the parents and the children and a time for everyone to adjust to their newly minted parenting plan.

Parents should never use their children as messengers, they should not bad-mouth the other parent to their children or otherwise engage in behavior intended to alienate the children from the other parent. Instead, they should foster love and affection for the other parent and reaffirm to their children how they will still be raised by both parents who love them and care for them despite the physical separation of their parents.

A parent should also refrain from interfering with the other parent’s telephone calls with the children and instead should do his or her best to facilitate contact with the other parent. To that end, a parent should never refuse to answer a call from the other parent or eavesdrop or place the call on the speakerphone. A parent should also refrain from any behavior that is intended to distract the child from enjoying his or her time with the other parent.

Of course it is all easier said than done but the Courts will not tolerate having a parent manipulate their children against the other parent or use their children as pawns or leverage. The Courts do frown on such behavior and will hold the recalcitrant parent accountable.

Thus, a detailed provision that addresses the frequency and the method of communication for both the parents and the children should safeguard the parents from a trip to the Courthouse on an enforcement or modification proceeding.

Since the default in Florida is for the parents to share the parental responsibility, the parents should also take time to develop a parenting plan that would contain the language necessary for the parents to confer with each other and jointly make decisions affecting their children. This means that the parents may not take unilateral action concerning their children’s education and health, among other issues. They instead need to work together and present a united front, especially when two separate households are involved.

The parents should also be aware how a parenting plan also governs their relocation if the change of location is at least 50 miles from the residence and is for at least 60 consecutive days not including a temporary absence from the principal residence for purposes of vacation, education, or the provision of health care for the child. See Section 61.13001(e), Florida Statutes.

The parenting plan also sets out the parameters for traveling with the children both out-of-state and overseas. A parent cannot simply book a same day trip on a whim and notify the non-traveling parent after the fact. The non-traveling parent must be provided with advance notice of the trip and, specifically, the non-traveling parent must be provided with a detailed itinerary that includes locations and telephone numbers where the children and the parent can be reached. The parents must also cooperate with each other in providing all the documentation that is necessary for the traveling parent to take the children out of the country.

Additionally, when international travel is at issue, a parent should be aware of Forms DS-3053, DS-5525 and DS-3077.

Form DS-3053, Statement of Consent, enables the parent to consent to the issuance of a child’s passport when the parent is unable to appear in person at the Passport Acceptance Facility.

Form DS-5525, Statement of Exigent/Special Family Circumstances For Issuance of a U.S. Passport to a Minor Under Age 16, may be submitted with supporting documentation to establish why the consent of the other parent cannot be obtained. The parent alleging exigent or special family circumstances must explain in detail the non-applying parent’s or guardian’s unavailability and recent efforts made to contact the non-applying parent. The applying parent also may be required to provide evidence (e.g., custody order, incarceration order, restraining order) to document his/her claim of exigent or special circumstances. To protect against international parental child abduction, the Passport Agency processing the application may ask for additional details if the statement is determined to be insufficient.

Finally, Form DS-3077, a Request for Entry Into Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program, enables a parent who completes the form to be notified or alerted when the other parent applies for a passport for the child and also allows the parent who completes the form to object to the issuance of a passport.

Again, in order to reduce the potential for conflict between the parents, the parents should always take the time to develop their parenting plan. A parenting plan should always contain sufficient detail to enable the parents to co-parent in harmony and preclude a conflict in the future.

Otherwise, it will not be long until either an enforcement action or a modification action is pursued by a parent.

At the same time, parents should keep in mind that to modify a parenting plan is not an easy task. The parent who wishes to modify the parenting plan provisions must satisfy the Wade v. Hirschman two-part test. Specifically, a parent must show that (1) there has been a substantial, material and unanticipated change in the circumstances since the original proceeding and that (2) the change will be in the child(ren)’s best interests. See Wade v. Hirschman, 903 So. 2d 928 (Fla. 2005). The facts that constitute a substantial change and that justify a modification are case specific.

Although unforeseen events do occur soon after an original parenting plan is first established, that does not happen often.

It would therefore benefit both parents to take their time the first time around and create a parenting plan that considers the needs of their children and contains the structure necessary for the parents and the children to transition to this post-divorce, post-separation time. The parenting plan should take into account the developmental needs of the children and in cases of multiple children of different ages, may need to contain a separate timesharing schedule for each child.

Ultimately, if the parents think about the children’s welfare rather than their own interests and take the time to develop a functional parenting plan that clearly enumerates each parent’s responsibilities, allows the parents to make minor modifications through mutual consent, establishes guidelines for parents to communicate with each other and their children, then the more likely they are to effectively employ the parenting plan as a roadmap to successful co-parenting.