In a recent blog post, we discussed the Florida Standard Parenting Time Plan, noting that it is helpful to have as a back-up when parents can't agree on a plan, but that it is better to custom-design your own plan if possible. Making a parenting plan in Florida means creating a blueprint for co-parenting, perhaps for many years, with someone who is no longer a romantic partner. It's important to get it right. Let's talk about what needs to be included in a Florida parenting plan, and how you and your children's other parent might reach agreement.
What is a Florida Parenting Plan?
A parenting plan is, in a sense, the “private law” of your co-parenting relationship. It governs the way you and your co-parent will raise your children and spend time with them. This important document must be approved by the court overseeing your divorce or custody matter.
A Florida parenting plan must contain certain elements. The minimum information required in a parenting plan is found in Florida Statutes 61.13(2)(b) and includes:
- A statement explaining in detail how the parents will divide their child-rearing responsibilities;
- A statement outlining the family's time-sharing schedule, specifically, how each parent will spend time with the child, and how much time the child will have with each parent;
- A statement regarding which parent will have ultimate responsibility for making medical and educational decisions, including identifying which residence will determine the child's school district. Responsibility for other decisions, including involvement in other activities, should also be outlined.
- A statement addressing how parents will communicate with a child, including what technology will be used
Florida courts will generally approve a parenting plan so long as the plan's terms, specifically those regarding parental responsibility and time-sharing, are in the best interests of the child. Typically, parents will share parental responsibility (which in some states is called “legal custody”), unless the court believes shared parental responsibility is not in the child's best interests. Parents may decide that one of them will have more time with the child, or may decide to share time equally. The court also has the discretion to set aside the parents' agreement if it finds that sole residential custody to one parent is in the child's best interests.
How Does a Court Decide What is in a Child's Best Interests?
We have used the expression “the best interests of the child” repeatedly, and you may be wondering what it means from a legal standpoint. Most parents believe they know what is in their child's best interests, but, as you can imagine, parents of the same child often disagree about what that is. How does a court consider what is in a child's best interests?
A thorough answer to that question would take several blog posts. But, in short, there are over 20 factors that courts routinely consider when evaluating what is in a child's best interests. These factors, found in Florida Statutes, include:
- Each parent's disposition to foster a close parent-child relationship, honor time-sharing schedules, and to be reasonable and flexible when changes are needed;
- How parental responsibilities are anticipated to be divided;
- Each parent's inclination to consider and act on the child's needs rather than their own;
- The length of time the child has lived in a stable, satisfactory environment and the desirability of maintaining continuity;
- The geographic viability of the parenting plan, with special attention paid to the needs of school-age children and the amount of travel time needed to make the parenting plan work. (This factor does not create a presumption for or against relocation of either parent with a child.)
- The moral fitness of the parents.
- The mental and physical health of the parents.
- The home, school, and community record of the child;
- The reasonable preference of the child, if the court finds the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding, and experience to express a preference;
- How well-informed each parent is about the child's life, including, but not limited to, the child's friends, teachers, medical care providers, daily activities, and favorite things;
- Each parent's capacity to provide a consistent routine for the child, such as discipline, and daily schedules for homework, meals, and bedtime;
- Each parent's capacity to communicate with and keep the other parent informed of issues and activities regarding the minor child, and the willingness of each parent to adopt a unified front on all major issues when dealing with the child;
- Evidence of domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect, regardless of whether there has been a court case;
- Evidence that either parent has knowingly provided false information to the court about a prior or pending action regarding domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, child abandonment, or child neglect;
- The specific parenting tasks each parent customarily handled and the division of parental responsibilities before and during the court case at hand;
- How involved each parent is and has been in the child's school and extracurricular activities;
- The capacity of each parent to maintain an environment for the child which is free from substance abuse;
- The capacity and disposition of each parent to protect the child from the ongoing litigation, including not disparaging the other parent to the child or showing the child documents or other information about the case;
- The developmental stages and needs of the child and the demonstrated capacity and disposition of each parent to meet the child's developmental needs;
- Any other factor that is relevant to the determination of a specific parenting plan, including the time-sharing schedule.
As you can see, the court looks at many different things when determining what parenting arrangements would be in a child's best interests. In essence, each of these factors boils down to a parent's willingness and ability to put the child's needs first, and their track record of doing so.
If you have questions about negotiating a parenting plan in Florida, we invite you to contact us at The Florida Family Law Group to schedule a consultation. We are happy to work with you to craft a plan that meets the needs of your children and their parents.