Co-Parenting and Joint Custody Tips

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The end of your divorce or custody case is only the start of your co-parenting relationship with your former spouse or partner. Co-parenting can be difficult, especially if you had a high-conflict legal case. But these co-parenting and joint custody tips can help you resolve issues that come up and avoid going back to court on a post-judgment custody modification motion.

What is Co-Parenting?

Co-parenting is when both parents play an active role in their children’s day-to-day lives and cooperate regarding the same. Except in severe cases, such as domestic violence, most divorce judgments and custody orders call for some level of co-parenting. Co-parenting includes joint custody decision making, interactions at parenting time exchanges and childhood events, and communicating with each other about doctors’ appointments, parent-teacher conferences, and other child-related issues. Mechanically, this involves the shared responsibility to make decisions for your children, and facilitate their health, growth, and relationships with both parents.

When former spouses and partners think about co-parenting it often reminds them of conflict. You may be remembering sour conversations during your marriage or separation, or dreading what will happen the next time you need to make an adjustment in parenting time. However, healthy co-parenting doesn’t have to be emotionally taxing.

What is Joint Custody?

In Michigan, most custody orders grant parents “joint legal custody” over their children. This means that the parents are ordered to cooperate and coordinate with each other in making important decisions affecting their children’s:

  • Health
  • Education
  • Religious upbringing
  • Discipline
  • Well-being

This doesn’t mean you have to coordinate with your ex-spouse about everything. Day-to-day decisions like a child’s snacks, homework routines, and bedtimes are generally controlled by the parent exercising physical custody at the time. However, larger issues, like vaccinations, baptisms, and changing schools must be made together as co-parents.

Healthy Signs of Effective Co-Parenting

Healthy co-parenting means more than simply an absence of conflict. When parents are working together effectively to co-parent their children, their kids feel more secure, consistent, and supported. Kids with effective co-parents may also be better at solving problems, and less likely to try to play one parent against the other to get what they want. It will also make you as parents less susceptible to being played against each other.

Putting Kids Needs First

The #1 sign of effective co-parenting is when the kids’ needs and priorities are the center of the conversation. All too often, parents are distracted from their children’s best interests by things that “I need” or “I would rather have.” By looking at what is most important and effective for your children first, and prioritizing that over your own convenience, you and your co-parent will find it easier to reach agreement, and your final decisions will be better targeted toward your children’s needs.

Co-Parenting Communication Guidelines

Most of the work of co-parenting involves communication. When, how, and why you contact your co-parent can provide a good temperature reading for the strength of your co-parenting relationship. When working together on joint custody issues and parenting time schedules, co-parents should:

  • Always be respectful of one another
  • Use a business-like tone and remove inflammatory language
  • Separate emotion from the communication (if necessary tell your co-parent you will get back to them and then cool off before responding further)
  • Make requests instead of demands
  • Listen to the other person’s perspective and ask their opinion
  • Agree on preferred methods for communication (i.e. calls, texts, emails, shared calendars, or formal co-parenting software, like Our Family Wizard or App Close)

Setting Co-Parenting Boundaries

One clear sign of healthy co-parenting comes from what you don’t try to control. Often, when parents find themselves back in court on a post-judgment motion related to joint custody it is because one parent tried to control the day-to-day decisions of the other parent, or excluded that parent from those important decisions where communication and mutual agreement is necessary. One way to avoid this is by setting clear boundaries about what is, and is not, unilaterally up to your co-parent and on the table for discussion. Boundaries may include:

  • Reasonable response times for requests and non-emergency communication
  • Limits on parent-initiated contact during the other parent’s visitation
  • Specific “family time” that won’t be interrupted except in emergency situations
  • Topics (such as who your co-parent dates) that are off-limits

Making Parenting Time Adjustments

The best custody and parenting time orders include a specific schedule that directs what times the children will be with each parent. This gives your children consistency and predictability (allowing them to make plans with friends, for example). However, there will come a time when even the best court-ordered schedule just won’t work:

  • A family reunion, wedding, or funeral happens during the other parent’s time
  • A new extracurricular activity makes it difficult to get to parenting time exchanges on time
  • A change in job or shift assignments means a parent spends their parenting time at work instead of with the children
  • A family vacation needs to be cut short for a parenting time exchange
  • A child is contagious or very ill and should not be transported to a different household (Note: Both parents are able to care for a sick child. Illness is not automatically a reason to cancel parenting time.)

When co-parents have a healthy joint custody relationship, they are willing to be flexible and work around these kinds of scheduling issues. Not every request for a scheduling change is an attempt to interfere with the co-parent’s relationship with the child. Instead, these requests focus on the children’s needs and experiences, and usually include make-up time for the parent missing out. Depending on the circumstances, it may be a good idea to build into your judgment, guidelines for schedule modification requests and makeup parenting time.

Options for When Co-Parenting Breaks Down

Unfortunately, effective co-parenting only works when both parents are willing to commit. When communication and cooperation breaks down, you may need the help of a mediator or family law attorney to resolve joint custody and parenting time disputes. This doesn’t automatically mean you are headed back to court. Often, an attorney’s objective advice, or a mediator’s assistance in facilitating the discussion can help parents get back on the same page. Consideration of a trained co-parenting therapist may also be a good idea for high conflict cases. However, if co-parenting has entirely broken down, a family law attorney can also help you file a motion with the court to resolve a joint custody dispute or modify an existing custody and parenting time order where there is proper cause or a change of circumstances to warrant doing so.

At NSSSB, our Ann Arbor family law attorneys want to help you maintain a healthy co-parenting relationship. We help parents resolve their joint custody disputes and keep the focus on their kids. We can assist in negotiations, mediation, dispute resolution, and file post-judgment motions asking the court for modifications that reflect your needs and your child’s best interests. Click here to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

Categories: Child Custody, Parenting