What Are Parenting Time Guidelines, and How Can You Make Them Work for Your Family?

Parenting time guidelines help you, your ex, and your children navigate visitation issues.
Matthew Carter
November 17, 2021
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here are plenty of challenges around divorce and the transition into co-parenting, but one gets frequently overlooked: the not-so-simple logistical changes of having two households instead of one. If you build a clear-cut family calendar that serves the best interest of you, your co-parent, and your child or children, your other challenges may fall into place — especially as time moves on. 

So what are parenting time guidelines? Simply put, they’re a roadmap for the best route forward for you, your child or children, and your co-parent in regards to who spends time with your kids and when. You might have heard this referenced as a “parenting plan” or “child custody plan.” Parenting time guidelines, or parenting plans, acknowledge that in most cases, a non-custodial co-parent doesn’t just passively drop in and out: They are an active and ongoing presence in your child’s life.

So how can you set parenting time guidelines that are beneficial to both your children and you, as parents? We’ve compiled several tools, tips, and goals to help you along your path to produce an optimal child custody schedule.

This article will take a look at parenting time guidelines provided by cities, counties, and states, particularly as they relate to the challenges of raising school-age children. Specifically, we’ll discuss:

  • What do parenting time guidelines entail? 
  • How do you use these guidelines when making your family’s parenting time plan?
  • What happens when your co-parent doesn’t follow the plan?

Keep in mind that parenting time guidelines can take a variety of forms in different parts of the country. Your state or court may have a website explaining their recommended suggestions for divorced parents. The California court system, for example, has a detailed site covering a range of topics about divorce and parenting. 

What Do Parenting Time Guidelines Cover?

Family and grandparents on video call

Parenting time guidelines can be long and filled with legal terminology. You’ll notice legalese like “best interests of the child,” “well-being,” “minor children,” and ”legal custody” sprinkled throughout. At times, it can feel like you are reading dry, black-letter statutes rather than a document designed for your family’s health and well-being.

They look so complicated because they’re trying to address the many variables involved in sharing custody of a child. But at their heart, they are trying to get at a few key ideas that aren’t so difficult to understand. They can help you think about critical factors when designing your own joint custody schedule, such as: 

Who should be the custodial parent/caregiver? 

Some parenting plans encourage equal time with each parent, regardless of who the child lives with most of the time. (In this article, we’ll refer to the parent with primary physical custody as the “custodial” parent.)

How much time should the child spend with each parent? 

The court or your mediator or lawyer can help determine a schedule that makes the most sense, based upon your individual circumstances as well as the child’s age. Some families like an almost 50/50 split. Others may set aside weekdays, weekends, or occasional non-consecutive weeks. Or maybe the kids spend summers or spring break with one particular parent. The distance between parent’s homes can also be a factor. 

What about holiday parenting time or the child’s birthday? 

Some families might celebrate the holidays together, but many will create a custody holiday schedule. Will the kids spend Christmas Eve with one parent and Christmas Day with the other, and then do the reverse every other year? You will also want to thoughtfully consider school breaks, Easter, New Year’s Eve, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or any other important dates well in advance. Since holidays can be a delicate issue, making a clear plan in advance will benefit everyone involved.

What are the best practices, considering the needs of the child? 

Co-parenting toddlers and other young children is different from parenting teenagers. Even though they need just as much guidance, older children also need space and independence. Parenting time guidelines can help your family balance needs for kids of different ages.

How should you handle communication and custody changes? 

Apart from the substantive advice about scheduling, parenting time guidelines can also provide valuable resources about how to handle stressful situations that can come up in co-parenting, like pick up, drop off, and communication with your ex about scheduled parenting time.

What happens when you need to change the schedule? 

Guidelines also include proposed rules that add flexibility to parenting time schedules. The importance of these rules can’t be overstated: Eventually, even the most well-planned schedule will have to bend a little bit. It’s good to have rules for quick changes and make-up visits.

What happens if one parent moves? 

Long-distance parenting is tough but doable. Relocations will need to be reviewed and approved by both parents and the court. From there, guidelines are in place that can help you modify parenting time arrangements on even-numbered or odd-numbered years for summer breaks, winter breaks, and everything in between.

All of these topics and more will be contained in most parenting time guidelines. It's therefore important that you and your ex take the time to sit down with the guidelines from your own state or court and decide how they apply to your family’s unique situation. Then you can start building your own guidelines and putting them to work.

Howan Parenting Time Guidelines Help Your Family?

Parenting time guidelines for schedule

Parenting time guidelines are just that — guidelines that explain what a family court judge considers the standard in cases like yours. But they’re flexible, so you and your co-parent can make your own agreement based on the wants and needs of you and your children. If you and your co-parent agree on a schedule that’s different from the norm, then that is up to you. 

In cases where you and your co-parent can’t agree on a schedule, or your child wants a custody arrangement that neither of you is currently able to provide, a judge will often review the parenting time guidelines and talk to you about what they recommend. After consideration, and unless there is a good reason to deviate from the guidelines, the court will likely come up with its own solution that is close to the recommended result from those guidelines. In this way, the court balances everyone's needs for flexibility and also provides as much consistency as possible.

Keep in mind that the structure provided by parenting time guidelines can also help you avoid issues with your ex. They are designed to emphasize routine and schedules, so that you don’t have to be in constant communication with your ex about particular pickup times and days that work best for scheduled visits, holidays, or after-school activities. If you have more details and procedures sketched out in advance, there’s less room for misunderstandings or hurt feelings.

This problem-minimizing feature of the parenting time guidelines also offers a blueprint for how you can handle other aspects of co-parenting. For instance, a common problem many co-parents have is handling conversations about everyday costs.

Just as courts can use guidelines to streamline details about your parenting plan you can use tools like the Onward App to create a protocol dealing with expense-related issues. If you have a central app through which you and your ex submit costs and share expenses, that is one less point of communication that can go wrong.

The lessons of parenting time guidelines, then, go beyond what they can do for your schedules. While “no drama” may not be explicitly written into guidelines, anything that lessens it is always welcome.

What Happens When Someone Breaks the Rules?

Solemn looking couple signing parenting time guidelines

Even when the most complete guidelines are used to create the clearest court order, misunderstandings, accidents, and unplanned exceptions can occur. When parenting time issues arise, the court will need to decide what happens when one co-parent or the other violates the terms of the parenting time order.

Even in this situation, many parenting time guidelines will have you covered. A common provision will provide that, in the event of a dispute, you and your co-parent should not run to a judge and litigate. Going to court is often time-consuming, stressful, and expensive. As you may have learned from divorce, legal advice from a family law attorney can be costly

Rather, the guidelines will recommend that you both engage in family court mediation or some other kind of alternative dispute resolution

Mediation in particular is often a good option in family cases because it allows the whole family, children included, to have a say in the decision-making process. And when a person feels that they have collaborated in creating a solution, they are more likely to accept it and stick to it.

It’s important to note, though, in some situations, it won't be appropriate to follow these guidelines. When domestic violence or substance abuse is involved, for example, mediation or other collaborative methods shouldn't be used, as they may put children or parents in danger. As with all other aspects of child custody, you must always consider the context.

Time Guidelines Help Your Family Find Its Way

Every family is unique in its strengths and challenges. Even so, the experiences of families that have faced those challenges before can make your situation easier. Parenting time guidelines help you agree to and enforce an optimal structure for parenting after separation, so that your family may have a sense of security and an easier time navigating the changes it now faces.

The good news is that, even though your family now looks different, it is just as strong (or even stronger) than it was before. Parenting time guidelines are just another tool that you can use to help you and your ex plan your children’s future with confidence and harmony.

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.