Friday, September 02, 2005

Legislative Update: Parenting Plans In Texas Divorces

Effective September 1, 2005, a new law takes effect that will have a major impact on the way divorces
are conducted in Texas. House bill 252, enacted a change to the Family Code which requires every parent
or guardian going through a divorce in Texas to create a detailed document called a “parenting plan”. Under
the new law, parents seeking a divorce must submit an agreed parenting plan before the judge will issue a
temporary or final order. If the parents cannot agree to the parenting plan on their own, then in most cases,
they will be ordered to attend a dispute resolution process before they will be able to go before the judge
who will make a final decision.
A parenting plan is defined as a “temporary or final court order that sets out the rights and duties of
parents in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship and includes provisions relating to conservatorship,
possession of and access to a child, and child support and a dispute resolution process to minimize future
disputes.” (Texas Family Code §153.601).
Parenting plans have already been enacted in about half the states. The concept is to shift parents
thinking away from “winning or losing” the children issues in a divorce, towards a more cooperative attitude.
With parenting plans, both parents concentrate on the future well being of their children by creating a
detailed, written contract about how the children will be raised after the divorce.

Difficult, but worth the effort
For individuals going through the divorce process, there may be nothing more difficult than sitting down with
your soon to be ex-spouse to discuss the future. But for the sake of your children, there is nothing more
The coming divorce may be the end of your marriage, but not the end of your family. The family must
change now, but it will continue. A new framework must be created that is in the best interest of the children,
but should also, as much as possible, be designed to be in your best interest as well.
Parents know their children’s schedules and routines, they know their own schedules, and their own
strengths and weaknesses in raising their children. Parents are clearly the best people to make the
decisions for their children. If left to others, to judges, to psychologist, to social workers, then you will get an
“off the rack” plan. This may not necessarily be the best solution for your family. Parents therefore should
take an active role in planning for their children’s future early in the divorce, even though this may be a
difficult and painful process. Although judges in Texas have the right to review any parenting plan to make
sure that it is in the best interest of children, most judges will agree to plans made by parents that are well
thought out and put the children’s well being first.

Creating Effective Parenting Plans
Experts agree that a parenting plan should be both specific and flexible. Parents are not divorcing the
children- they will merely be parenting from separate households. However, each household will have a
different physical home, and process of decision making. In a parenting plan, these two households must
plan out how to cooperate to provide the physical, emotional, spiritual and financial needs of the child.
A well crafted plan will solve many problems. By creating a workable plan that divides parenting
responsibilities based on the parent’s strengths and weaknesses, it is much more likely that the parents will
follow the plan, whether or not they get along. Inclusion of agreements to treat each other with respect in
front of the children will also help with this. Statistics also show that parents who crate a parenting plan are
80% more likely to comply with the plan than if it was created by the courts.

Under the new statute, a parenting plan must include the following basic things:
1) a division of the rights and duties regarding the children to each parent;
2) a plan to minimize the child’s exposure to harmful conflict by the parents;
3) provide for the child’s changing needs as the child grows and matures, in a way that minimizes the
need for changing of the parenting plan;
4) provide a way for the parents to resolve their future disputes without going back to the court, such as
talking things out together, or going through a non judicial process like mediation. (Texas Family Code §153.

These elements should be written with as much detail as possible. A few of the many considerations are:

Residence of the children
Definite periods of time with each parent will need to be decided based on the schedules of the children and
the parents. The children’s ages and school situations and the parents employment and availability should
all be considered. Many families find a traditional arrangement where the children spend the week with one
parent and specific weekends and vacations with the other parent. However, other families may find that a
different schedule fits their needs better.

Responsibilities of parents
When the children are with them each parent will naturally have the responsibility to make sure the children
are well cared for. But a parenting plan must include whether one parent or both will be responsible for
education, medical and other decisions.

Financial support
Financial arrangements will need to be made to support the children. Under Texas law, there are guidelines
for support, but some parents may find that it is better to share financial responsibility based on a pro rata
share of the amount of time the children live with them and in proportion to their income.

Future Relocation
If either parent moves in the future, then this may impact the residence of the children or visitation for the
parents. Solutions to this possibility without resorting to going to court should be considered.

Periodic Reviews
Because peoples lives are in constant change, parents may want to consider including a provision for
periodic reviews of the parenting plan so that changes can be made by agreement before disagreements

Additional help
Although the idea of encouraging divorcing parents to put their children first through parenting plans is
a noble one, it may not be as easy as our legislators think. People who have reached the point of divorce
are often unable to communicate about even the simplest of matters, let alone major decisions involving their
children. The assistance of additional help is most likely necessary to develop an effective parenting plan.
In most cases, an experienced family law attorney can help you create a parenting plan that is right for you
and your family. In selecting an attorney, you should consider only those who have high ethical standards
and are knowledgeable about issues in family law cases involving children. You should also select someone
who keeps up with the current law.
In some cases the additional help of a professional “parenting coordinator” may also be beneficial. A
parenting coordinator is defined under the new law as a “third party appointed by the court to assist parties
in resolving issues relating to parenting and other family issues arising from an order in a suit affecting the
parent-child relationship.” (Texas Family Code §153.601). The role of the parent coordinator is to help
disputing parents: (1) identify disputed issues; (2) reduce misunderstandings; (3) clarify priorities; (4) explore
possibilities for problem solving; (5) develop methods of collaboration in parenting; (6) develop the parenting
plan; and (7) comply with the rulings of the court.
Involvement of a parent coordinator may either be by mutual agreement of the parents, or in cases
where the parties are in high conflict with each other, the judge may order that a parent coordinator be used.

By adopting the parenting plan in children cases, Texas has come in line with the current trend among
states to try to come up with laws that reduce the impact of divorce on children. Parenting plans can become
another tool parents can use with their attorney to ease the transition of divorce. However, it is commonly
agreed that there is no real way to legislate good parenting. This comes only from the hearts of parents and
their willingness to put their children’s best interest above their own.