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How Specific Should You Make Your Parenting Plan? (The More Specific The Better . . . )

Posted by Patrick Ward | Feb 03, 2023 | 0 Comments

Negative space is the area that the artist chooses to leave unpainted. For a painter (much like the child who put together this piece), negative space may be a good choice. During a mediation session, when clients struggle to work toward a resolution, negative space – silence – can be a powerful tool. Silence may allow clients to sit with the process, considering their shared interests and pondering options. Silence may sometimes help overcome an impasse and lead to a mediated agreement.

However, the mediated agreement should not include negative space. For the agreement, negative space is an ambiguous or undefined term. The agreement should be specific, especially when the clients will have an ongoing relationship and the conflict is especially contentious – and is especially true with parenting plans.

Ambiguous or undefined terms can be detrimental to clients navigating parenting decisions for children at almost any age. I once made the mistake of assuming that a clause as simple as "neither parent will schedule events or activities during the other parent's parenting time" was sufficiently clear for the client's teenager. It was not. The child had several afterschool activities and one parent assumed that the activity, a year-round sport, would continue post-divorce and that the child would be signed up for additional seasons – even if they infringed on the other parent's parenting time; the other parent did not. The parents were highly contentious about multiple issues, and what I thought was a strong statement in the parenting plan turned out to be weak because the clients did not have a meeting of their minds. Sadly, I've heard that this clause has been litigated to the detriment of the clients and the child.

A better plan should have explored each client's meaning of "schedule events or activities" and allowed the clients to explore a mediated agreement on that term. New events and new activities? Or any events and activities. Sometimes the mediator needs to identify and explore unstated ambiguities, which might help clients come to agreements, define terms, and avoid the time and frustration of ongoing litigation.

There are three considerations when putting together Parenting Plans:

  1. Be specific as to all terms. You may be co-parenting well now, but that may not last as your children grow and change or your relationship with the co-parent changes.
  2. Question whether you both agree what the language means. Its possible that you have different interpretations.
  3. When you make mutually agreed changes to the parenting plan, which is inevitable since no plan will work for everyone, all the time, put the changes in writing and follow points one and two above!

Of course, whether to leave something ambiguous and undefined is up to the clients. They get to decide what is in their parenting plan and the rest of their agreement. After my error with the family above, I now gently remind parents that any ambiguity in the parenting plan may lead to future conflict. I work hard to help clients' identify areas of ambiguity. My goal for my clients is to help them decide whether to fill in the negative space and establish a firm parenting plan for their future.

About the Author

Patrick Ward

Patrick Ward is a Mediator and Collaborative Divorce Attorney who is committed to emotionally healthy and child-centered solutions to family conflict, such as divorce or custody disputes. He is a flexible, creative, and committed resource for clients.


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