I’m going to start this article upfront by saying that I am not a lawyer. Nothing you are about to read is legal advice… this is a culmination of data collected from my stepmom tribe and our mutual experiences in shared parenting with custody agreements.
Raise your hand if you or your significant other do not have a legally binding custody agreement in place. Doesn’t not having a custody agreement impact your daily life with the tension it creates?! Every single detail has to be hashed out in-the-moment between the parents, and it is incredibly draining.
Now, often more frustrating, raise your hand if you have a custody agreement, but it has too many gray areas in it. You have a custody agreement, but you wish it was written differently, or you wish something was in it that you failed to include the first time around.
Raise your hand if you’ve had your custody agreement modified, and it’s STILL not crystal clear. You are still finding areas that one parent of the other creates a loophole in, and you’re back to square one.
Sharing time with your kids is absolutely brutal, no doubt about it. You want your kids to be with you for every major event. You want to make all the decisions about the kids with your spouse. You want to live the life you dreamed of as a little girl…
…but here you are. Realizing that your dream was just a fairy tale. Realizing that most adults have baggage (Disclaimer: Stepchildren are not baggage… but the drama that can come with co-parenting most certainly can be). Realizing that so much did not go as planned, and learning how to cope.
There’s a lot of great information in this article, but it’s long! If you need a crash course right now, download this free custody agreement template (pdf)!
A thorough and descriptive custody agreement is absolutely necessary not only for logistics, but also for your (and everyone else’s) mental well-being. When you feel like you have no control, you can revert back to the custody agreement. If it does not work in your favor, at least you have something to blame, right?!
Custody Agreements: What you NEED to Include!
One of the most common questions we receive in our private online community for stepmoms is, “We are about to go to court… what do we need to make sure is included in our custody agreement?”
For all of you struggling with the same question, my stepmom tribe has helped me pull together this comprehensive list of items we have found helpful in our custody agreements.
What school district will the child attend? If one parent has primary physical custody, it can be assumed that the child will attend school in their school district… but still, get it clearly written into the agreement. Additionally, the child attending school in Parent A’s school district does not mean that Parent A gets to make all of the major decisions.
With joint legal custody, it is necessary for parents to collaborate and agree upon educational (and medical) issues. If the parents cannot agree on an issue, who has the final say? What is the “tie-breaker” plan for major educational decisions?
Related to schooling concerns, clearly define childcare within your custody agreement if the child is not yet school age, or requires before or after-school care. Where will the child attend preschool or daycare? Have the cost at-hand, because the cost of child care should be factored into the child support calculation, if applicable.
During the summer, what will the school-age child do? What about during school holidays? Is the care of a grandparent regular, and can that be included in the agreement? It is important to cross your T’s and dot your I’s when defining child care accurately in a custody agreement.
Specify exactly when and where child exchanges will occur. If it is assumed that exchanges will occur through school drop-offs and pick-ups… then what about times the school is closed? If the child is not yet school aged, be more specific than “Monday before work.” Specify trades will occur “Monday at 8:00am.” How long will Parent A wait for Parent B at the exchange before the visit is forfeited?
Who will drive where to give or receive the child? Are third-parties, such as stepparents or grandparents, allowed to do the exchanges? These may seem menial, but not defining exchanges ahead of time is a leading cause in the conflict surrounding custody agreements.
Do the clothes/belongings the child wore/brought need to be exchanged, or is it up to the child to decide what-stays-where?
Holidays Clearly Outlined
Take into account which holidays you want to be covered in the agreement. Does “Grandparents Day” count as a holiday to you? Specify which holidays you’re talking about, as well as how you want to share them. Some families alternate annually, while others have the same agreement each year. Additionally, if you choose to split a holiday mid-day (i.e. Christmas morning at Dad’s and Christmas evening at Mom’s), specify what time the trade is going to occur.
In addition to holidays, do you want to include birthdays as well?
Vacation Time Clearly Outlined
In my husband’s first custody agreement, holidays were defined as “a week.” That turned into complications, as to get it “down to the hour,” we were doing mid-day trades on Saturdays, and it wasn’t making much sense. In modification, it got changed to weeks beginning Friday evenings, and ending Monday mornings (typically school drop-off) after 10 overnights.
Think about what makes the most sense, and what would cause conflict if not clearly outlined.
Additionally, how many vacation weeks a year do you get? How far in advance do you need to notify the other parent of vacation time? Can Parent A’s vacation time trump Parent B’s holiday time? Each of these items needs to be discussed and included in the custody agreement.
How far away can one parent travel with the child before needing to notify the other parent? In any instance (perhaps international travel), does one parent need to ask the other parent for permission to travel? What is the formal method of notification or of asking permission? How far in advance does one parent need to be notified of travel?
Right of First Refusal
Many custody agreements include a Right of First Refusal clause that states something in the ballpark of, “Each party shall have the first right of refusal to provide care for the minor child if the other party finds it necessary to have an alternate caregiver for more than a four (4) hour period of time” (this example language was found here).
Stepparents are considered an alternate caregiver unless otherwise specified within the agreement. Therefore, if your custody agreement used the example language above, and your spouse got called into work for a five-hour period, you would need to contact the other parent and ask them if they would like to keep the kids during that time. The other parent has the “first right” to the kids during that time.
Who will the child’s primary medical care provider be? Who carries the child on their health insurance? How long does the insurance carrier reasonably have to provide the other parent a copy of the current insurance card?
What is the emergency plan? In what instance can the child be taken to urgent care, versus the emergency room? What happens if the parents cannot agree on a medical decision? What is the “tie-breaker” plan for major medical decisions?
Out-of-Pocket Medical Expenses
It is imperative to include who-will-pay-what-portion of any out-of-pocket medical expenses. Additionally, include time-frames for when a bill needs to be received, as well as a proof of payment.
For example, Parent A (who received the bill from the doctor’s office) has 30 days to provide Parent B a copy of the bill requesting their portion of the payment. Additionally, Parent A has 30 days to provide Parent B a copy of the receipt or bank statement showing the payment was actually made.
In the same light, it may be a good idea to include a phrase noting that Parent B is not responsible for any late fees due to Parent A neglecting to review the bill in a timely manner.
Even when parents have equal physical parenting time with their child, it is common for child support to be paid from one parent to the other based on income. Additionally, out-of-pocket medical expenses should be covered in your agreement, as outlined above. But what about extracurricular activities?
If your child wants to sign up for dance, who pays for it? Some parents split extracurricular activities to the same percentages they split out-of-pocket medical expenses. Be sure to discuss this and get it included in the custody agreement.
It should be determined and accounted for whoever is carrying the child on their health insurance in the child support calculation… but what about car insurance? What about the cell phone bill? Is each parent responsible for half? Does the child have any responsibility in the matter and if so, what happens if the child misses a payment?
Do you want all requests to change the regular schedule to be communicated via email? Do you only want to be contacted by the other parent between 9am and 5pm? These things may sound extreme, but in high-conflict situations, they can be extremely beneficial.
Do you want to have all communication through a third-party application, such as Our Family Wizard? If so, indicate it in the custody agreement. Example language for incorporating the use of Our Family Wizard into custody agreements can be found here.
Do you want to set up parameters for how often Parent A can contact the child while they are with Parent B? This would apply to young children who do not have a personal cell phone.
If parents do not have the same stance on religion, then a religion clause may be necessary. For example, it can be written that the children cannot be brought to a church or religious function unless the child wants to go or that a child may practice any religious exercises only within a certain faith (e.g., Christianity).
I know it’s hard to think about… but if Parent A dies, should their spouse (i.e. the stepparent, and any half-siblings they may have) still have access to or visitation with the child? Defining this now would prevent the stepparent from the headache (and heartache) of having to file for visitation after the fact. This can also be addressed in a blended family will.
Is Parent A in the military, or in another job they may be called away for unexpectedly? If this occurs, should Parent A’s spouse (i.e. the stepparent) still have access to or visitation with the child? Should the custody arrangement remain intact, or does Parent B get the child by default?
How far away are you able to move from one another? In situations where the parents have shared physical custody, it is common to see a mileage limitation in a custody agreement. How will a relocation impact the exchange details set previously in the agreement?
For example, if Parent A moves more than 20 miles away, does Parent A now become responsible for all pick-ups and drop-offs, instead of sharing the responsibility?
How far in advance does one parent need to notify the other one of a move? A common theme in custody agreements is each parent must give 30-day advance notice of a change of address to the other parent, as well as to the court.
Is there a restriction on overnight guests of the opposite sex? Does Parent A need to be married before the guest can stay overnight while the kids are present? Or just in a steady relationship? How do you define “steady?” While we’re on the subject, is there a clause you want to include about how long Parent A must be dating someone before the significant other can be introduced to the children?
Is Parent A permitted to rent or Airbnb a portion of their home, such as the basement, while the children are in their care? If one parent is considering this option and both parents do not agree, this needs to be discussed further and decided upon in the custody agreement.
Who claims the child on taxes? Do parents alternate years? Do parents split any refund received? At what age will the parents stop claiming the child?
As each family is different, I’m sure there are a million other items covered in certain custody agreements. I hope you have found this list helpful in determining what is necessary for your family.
Can you think of another must-have that you included (or wish you included) in your custody agreement? Please let us know in the comments, so we can share the knowledge with our stepmom tribe around the world.
Didn’t take notes? No problem! Download this summary, a free custody agreement template (pdf), today!
P.S. Still trying to sort out the schedule? Here’s a quick guide to common custody schedules.