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Do I have choices in my parenting plan schedule?

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One of the biggest misconceptions out there about how parenting time works is that the standard parenting plan is the only plan available. It is the one that many judges use as a default in cases, as it's one that's been deemed to be fair and less disruptive to children. But it's not the only way to go - and there might be alternative family plans that fit a particular family far better than what's come to be known as "standard orders."

In cases where the mother is determined to be the custodial parent - the one who the children primarily live with - the father, as non-custodial parents, gets parenting time on Thursday evenings (picking up the kids after school and taking them to school Friday morning), as well as on the first, third, and fifth weekends (determined by the Friday date) each month until 6 pm on Sunday. In a common variant called "expanded standard orders," the kids stay over until Monday morning, when the father drives them to school.

For example, if March starts with Friday the 1st or 2nd, there will be five weekends in that month, with the fifth weekend starting on the 29th or 30th. Of course, not all months have five weekends, but enough do to make up the disparity between when the custodial parent and non-custodial parent get parenting time. (Theoretically, the extended stays during summer move the parents closer, but not exactly to, a 50/50 time split.)

There are also, as divorced parents know all too well, provisions to deal with the holidays fairly-one parent gets to spend Thanksgiving and New Year's with the children on even years and Christmas on odd years. Of course, parents can adjust in cases where the children want to spend holidays with both parents, but the alternating years are there for parents whose plans involve taking the children out of town, or for families where sharing the holiday isn't placed at a premium.

One alternative parenting plan that strives for equality is the "week on, week off" plan. It's simple to follow-a parent will pick up the children from school on Friday, for example, and the kids will be with that parent for a week. The next Friday, the other parent picks up the kids from school, and his or her week starts. This allows for continuous stays and less ambiguity, though it might be too long a stay for some kids. (It's also possible to build in an overnight stay with the other parent during the week, perhaps on Monday or Tuesday night, to make sure the kids aren't too long without one or the other parent.)

There are other variations on a 50/50 plan that might appeal to parents more. The 2-2-5-5 or 2-2-3 plan, for instance, has the children with Mom on Sunday and Monday, with Dad on Tuesday and Wednesday, and with Mom and Dad on alternating Thursdays through Saturdays. This can be good if children have a routine they need to keep to during the week-for example, if a child has a Wednesday evening activity closer to Dad's house than Mom's, it might make more sense to choose a 2-2-3 vs. a 50/50.

There's also a 3-3-4-4 plan that operates the same principle as the 2-2-3-providing seven days with Mom and seven days with Dad within a 14-day period. But the 3-3-4-4 is good for parents who would prefer having their children part of each weekend rather than for alternating full weekends.

It's crucial, no matter which plan parents settle on, to have the times as well as the days clearly designated in the decree, and to make sure that both parents are clear on the plan. The plan is the default that the parents use to provide consistency for their children, and it's there as a default plan. While it's certainly possible for parents to trade parenting time as schedule conflicts come up, it can be a source of contention for parents-indeed, some of the biggest arguments parents can have post-divorce are over attempted parenting time trades. Finding a parenting plan that fits this new version of your family is key to how your children will adjust to their post-divorce lives.

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