We put our heads together and also asked our IG followers to chime in about things to consider including in your custody agreement before going to court. We were able to compile a comprehensive list of topics you may wish to address during mediation or the divorce process when it comes to your children. It’s important to first figure out your non-negotiables and your “I-don’t-cares” on each line item before you begin negotiations. This way you will be confident in what boundaries with your ex you want to set and what things you are willing to give on because this is all about give and take; both parties need to feel represented, heard, and like they’ve won some of their wants. Also, it is good to have thought about as many possible custody requests as you can so you don't feel like a deer in headlights and end up agreeing to something you may regret later because you were caught of guard, or kicking yourself later for your ignorance in not putting a boundary in place that years down the road you wish you would have. You won't always know what the other side is brining to the table to negotiate, so take your time to plan and think about all this (even if you don't think you need to). There’s no “right” answer when it comes to custody agreements, but only what is the best interest of your children considering the abilities of each parent. It’s very important to have a clear baseline covering as much as you can agree upon, it’ll prevent future frustrations for all involved. Things change after divorce when other people begin to enter the picture and want to have a say in the way your children are being raised, so getting it down on paper as early as you can protects the integrity of the natural parent’s wishes.
During our podcast on this topic, Eric gave some pretty good perspective about what goes around comes around. It is important to realize that the restrictions you wish to place on the other parent will also be placed on you. So for example, if you want a "first right of refusal" after 3 hours, know that you will also have to also be held to that strict time constraint when the kids are in your care and custody. That may prevent the kids from being able to go spend time with and build relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles or other important friends and family members. My parents and Eric's parents often watched our respective kids overnight or for a few hours while we got some adult time in (when the kids were little and before we were together); it was only good for everyone. Our kids have gotten to create some pretty strong bonds with their grandparents which has been a pretty special thing. If you get too strict or too punitive with a custody agreement you may find that it comes back around to bite you in the butt and also may rob the children of some pretty important life experiences. Just something to keep in mind as you are going through the process.
In the beginning, when hurt and anger are pretty fresh, going through the divorce process and trying to mediate a custody agreement can be overwhelming and emotional. Know that over the years that all tends to wear off and you do see things more pragmatically. Know that your emotions will settle and you won't see the need to be so hard and rigid when it comes to the kids. Things that you put into your custody agreement in the beginning you may find unnecessary later on. This is something else to keep in mind when you are negotiating the terms of your custody agreement; try to keep the emotions out of it because they should not be an equal player here; they will change. The harder you make life in a custody agreement the harder life will be for all involved. Having said that, boundaries and expectations are SUPER important and you absolutely need to have them down to serve as a play book, but there does need to be room to grow and wiggle as life evolves with time and circumstance. So fight for your values but also don't nitpick every little thing.
There are two quite helpful tips we have learned from experience we'd like to pass on to you! The first is until you have a finalized, judge-stamped and court-processed custody agreement, STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA! Keep your life private, really really private. Everything can and will be held against you and twisted to make you look a certain way that fits the other side's narrative. The same goes for texts and emails, so watch what you say and do. The second is that you may want to pay by the hour for legal counsel to get all of your questions answered before you go to mediation; that way you look, act and feel confident and prepared. Find a family law attorney who will let you pay for an our of their time as needed to address your concerns before you go and turn them into a potential court battle. This saved me a lot when I was emotionally charged and wanting to take my concerns head on with my ex; I got talked off a cliff a lot which was only good for my children in the end (and also for my sanity and pocketbook). You may not fully realize the ripple effect of taking your ex to court over something that isn't that big of deal in the grand scheme of things without a professional giving you some real perspective.
One last thing, let's talk consistency and structure for a minute before we get to the list. It is very important that both parents give their children a sense of security by being consistent and creating structure between the two homes. It is in the children's best interest to be solid in knowing what to expect and what they can count on with their parents; it will make for more well adjusted kids.
As promised, here is the list of things to consider* when you are going negotiating a custody agreement:
Set Times for drop-off/pick-up, exchange location(s) and who does drop off or pick up (for example the parent who already has the kids will drop off).
School Stuff: Where (public, private, home-school, distance or in-person learning, what district, etc.), rules for changing schools if a parent wants to, sharing school/class Info between homes, private school tuition responsibilities if applicable (and is there a cap, is it income dependent), after school/before school care if needed and cost responsibilities, school work completion in each home, making class choices and paths in high school, etc.
Holiday and Birthday Splits (make sure you consider your own birthday if that matters to you) and swap times if either should fall on a regularly scheduled custody day that isn't yours.
Frist Right of Refusal: define what that means to you and after how many hours it kicks in.
Phone Calls/Video Chats and all other Parent/Child Communication: time, day of week, and duration. A good tip here that Eric gave was have the parent call the child instead of having the child be responsible contacting the parent.
Change of Appearance: drastic haircuts or colors, piercings, transgender issues, tattoos, etc.
Traveling - In State, Out of State and Other Countries: information that is shared such as flight and hotel info, written permission needed, allowed or not allowed, duration, amount of notice required to be given before trip, etc.
Vacations: duration, amount of notice given prior to, allowed during a holiday, information shared such as accommodations or flight info, etc. How much vacation time per year does each party get?
Medical/Dental Appointments/Care: insurance, do both have to attend, who decides when/what treatment is needed, vaccinations, changing doctors, cost sharing if elective or non-elective etc.
Moving Out of State: how this is handled if a parent decides to. Who forfeits primary custody at that point? Notice needed? Renegotiating the original custody agreement.
Unscheduled visits from the Ex (the other bio parent). Permitted? What boundaries, if any, are necessary to put in place if you have an intrusive and disruptive ex?
No bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the kids.
Do not use the kids as messengers, schedulers or punishers.
Extra-Curricular Activities: do both parents have to agree before signing up, cost sharing, information sharing, inclusion, etc.
Social Media: age, regulations, password sharing, both parents agree before privilege's given, etc.
Cellphone: age, regulations, GPS tracking sharing, cost sharing, rules, both parents need to agree before providing, etc.
Religion: can the kids go to different religious practices other than the one they were born into if the opportunity should arise in the custody and care of the other parent?
Jobs: can the kids work and at what age?
Cars and Driving: insurance, cost sharing, maintenance and repairs, distance driven, car sharing between both homes, etc.
Sex and Puberty talks: which parent heads this off? Same sex parent, stepparent allowed to??
Dating: at what age, alone or in groups, meet both parents, etc.
COVID 19 Life/Serious and contagious illnesses: quarantine, what if someone in the household tests positive, should the child go between homes when ill, etc.
*These topics are a guideline, but do not serve as legal advice or direction. You should seek counsel if you have questions or concerns how your state handles said issues. Also, not each thing may need to be addressed when you are negotiating your custody agreement.
Click below for a printable version of the above list to use as a checklist or reference sheet: