Making Joint Custody Schedules Easier and More Flexible

How to effectively balance co-parenting with your ex-partner.
Matthew Carter
July 28, 2021
Start managing shared expenses with your co-parent easily!

n the movies, divorce and child custody issues are portrayed in dramatic terms. The parents fight for sole custody in family law showdowns. They talk in absolutes and try to seize the moral high ground at every turn. This kind of thing might make for an entertaining film, but we probably don’t need to tell you that it doesn’t exactly reflect reality.

When you split and you have shared custody, you’re still a family, albeit a changed one. And it’s in every family member’s best interest to work together. Interacting with your ex is never going to be a piece of cake, but you can do it well and in a healthy way.

Courts are usually willing to let parents agree to their own terms for joint custody schedules. But if there are personal issues or disputes, most family judges will want to establish a custody calendar showing where a child is supposed to be at any given time. Even when there is a stricter court-enforced calendar, though, life can happen and plans can change.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how to design and modify parenting time schedules. This advice can help you whether you and your ex are more comfortable doing it yourselves or you need a court to help you make the final decisions. We’ll talk about:

  • The importance of flexibility as your family grows with your joint custody schedule
  • Using guidelines instead of hard-and-fast rules to make changes
  • Some important tools to use when designing your family’s calendar

Life Demands a Flexible Schedule

joint custody schedules: Mother and her children sitting on a table while using a laptop

Maybe you and your ex don’t get along very well, and you asked the court for a detailed physical and legal custody order ensuring equal time with both parents on specific days of the week. Or maybe you both get along fine, and one of you is just a stickler for details, planning your co-parenting responsibilities down to the last detail.

Either way, you’re bound to run into a time-honored truth of parenting: rigid, pre-planned co-parenting schedules are difficult to put into practice. You and your ex can start with the best of intentions and the most organized calendars, but the universe likes nothing more than to foil our carefully laid plans.

No matter how well you plan, there will be events in your child’s life that will interrupt your carefully planned custody schedule. You might have doctor’s appointments, birthday parties, school activities, and holidays or special trips that your child needs or wants to spend with a particular parent. It’s not a question of whether those interruptions will happen, but when.

So, you’ll need to be prepared. Let’s look at some ways to do that.

Focus on Guidelines Rather Than Rules

joint custody schedules: Father signing a document with his family around him

Sometimes, making too many rules can cause more problems. If someone breaks a rule, our first instinct is usually to punish. That’s not always a good idea. Young children in particular will not understand complex parenting rules, and if they perceive you as being unfair to your co-parent, nobody wins.

Where our kids’ schedules are involved, it can make sense to have more open guidelines than strict rules. When we see our exes’ actions in the light of a shared goal, we are more forgiving. It then becomes easier to communicate.

When thinking of guidelines for making and changing custody schedules, it’s helpful for you both to agree on a few key concepts and start by making sure those are being taken care of. You can do that by engaging in more communication with your child and your ex to make sure everyone’s needs are met. Your family’s needs will be unique, but they probably include:

  • Scheduled parenting time. No matter what your predetermined parenting time split is, you’re not going to be able to make it work all the time. Whether you each take a week at a time, trade weekends, or come to another arrangement, a little good will and effort at fairness will go a long way.
  • Where everyone lives. If a parent lives a farther distance away, there may be times when it makes more sense for you both to adjust the custody schedule to minimize multiple unnecessary pick-ups and drop-offs.
  • The needs of your child. A teenager’s schedule looks very different from a kindergartener’s. Older children will have more definite plans and extracurricular activities, so your schedule will need to be more adaptable. No matter your kid’s age, it helps to ask them what they prefer and try to make that work.
  • Sibling issues. If you have more than one child, remember that equal parenting and joint custody may look different depending on the needs of the individual children. Siblings should mostly stay together, but sometimes joint custody schedules can change in the interest of helping one parent and child spend more quality time together.
  • Fairly apportioned expenses. If one of you typically ends up with custody for doctor appointments or special occasions, you’ll want to make sure that both parents share those costs. This is even more important if one of you is the primary custodial parent.

You may have additional considerations too. Instead of making more rules around them, turn each into a priority or guideline that you can use together to make major decisions about scheduling.

For example, is it more important for Parent A and Parent B to have an equal number of days each month or certain kinds of days? Maybe your ex is fine with you taking the kids for an extra weekend in exchange for them getting to take the kids to see the latest Disney movie.

In this case, you’re prioritizing the quality time each of you spends with the kids over counting out the exact amount of time each of you spends with them. That guiding principle, rather than a hard and fast rule, can make co-parenting and scheduling a much less stressful process, provided that both parents commit to that guiding principle and clear communication.

The Best Tools for Joint Custody Schedules

Now that we’ve discussed the concepts that can go into creating a more dynamic, flexible custody calendar, let’s examine some of the tools you can use to make your ideas a reality. If you need recommendations for specific co-parenting apps (for both iOS and Android mobile devices), check out 13 Popular Co-Parenting Apps for Divorced Parents.

A Shared Family Calendar

One of our oldest organization tools is still among the best. A calendar can not only memorialize your current custody agreement or court order, it can also serve as a basis for discussion when you or your ex propose a change.

An internet-based calendar or shared app on your smartphones or other devices is easier to use because it syncs up automatically for multiple people, leaving less room for surprises and misunderstandings.

A word to the wise: don’t just add child custody entries to the calendar you use for everything else. As useful and user-friendly as Google Calendar is, you don’t want your co-parenting calendar intermingled with entries from every other aspect of your life. So if you are already using Google for something else, pick a different calendar for your custody issues.

Expense Tracking

The last thing you will need is a way to make sure that, no matter when your time is with the kids, your parenting expenses are fairly split. This is even more important when there are last-minute changes to a custody arrangement. It’s not fair to be left footing the bill for an expensive one-time schedule change meaning you have to pick up a bill for something new, and technology has made it easier to plan this than ever before.

The Onward App can help you track all expenses for your children in one place and easily communicate with your co-parent about those expenses. You can use it to propose new expenses and split everything from school expenses to holiday travel and birthday parties.

A Little Slack Goes a Long Way

When things get confusing or contentious, we often don’t cut ourselves enough slack. Unfortunately, we can also do this to our exes. Co-parenting after a divorce is difficult for the whole family. Remember to be kind to each other.

Most co-parents just want the best for their children. Once we remember that, we can work together towards a system of co-parenting and scheduling that is good for us and, more importantly, our children.

Start managing shared expenses with your co-parent easily!

Matthew Carter

Matthew Carter has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He has successfully handled a variety of trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal courts. Matthew has done pro bono work in the Las Vegas community representing foster children and helping reunite families separated in the Las Vegas family court system.