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Building a Parenting Agreement That Works

Child Custody Agreements Step by Step

Avoid child custody battles and save money, time, and grief

Avoid custody battles and save money, time, and grief.  Get information, worksheets, and a fill-in-the-blank parenting agreement that will help you create a fair and lasting child custody arrangement with your former partner. Keep your kids' needs at the forefront with Building a Parenting Agreement That Works. Learn how to handle:

  • money issues
  • tough decisions about your child's education and medical care
  • living arrangements, daily schedules, holidays, and other special occasions,
  • and much more

See below for a full product description.

  • Product Details
  • Working out a fair and realistic custody agreement is often crucial in protecting children’s best interests, but it may seem impossible for divorcing parents. That’s where Building a Parenting Agreement That Works comes in. This comprehensive guide will show you how to overcome all kinds of obstacles and build a win-win custody agreement that allows everyone—especially your children—to thrive.

    Find out how to:

    • minimize conflict, even in tense situations
    • create a workable agreement together, and
    • modify or renegotiate an existing agreement.

    Take advantage of practical solutions and sample language to resolve important issues like:

    • health care, education, and religion
    • living arrangements and moving
    • new partners and surnames
    • holidays, travel, and grandparent visits
    • different approaches to discipline, and
    • alcohol and drug use.

    “Clear, practical advice…and strategies for effective negotiations.”—New York Daily News

    Number of Pages
    Included Forms

    • Worksheet 1: Describe Your Child
    • Worksheet 2: Describe Your Relationship With Your Child
    • Worksheet 3: Adding the Details
    • Worksheet 4: Checklist of Issues for Your Parenting Agreement
    • Parenting Agreement
  • About the Author
    • Mimi Zemmelman, Ph.D.

      Mimi Lee has been active in dispute resolution and other facilitated decision-making processes for 25 years. She brings experiences as a mediator, trainer, facilitator, strategic planner, and court policy analyst to her work with families, businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations. Lee has co-founded a community mediation program, served on the California Dispute Resolution Council, the State Bar's Committee and was appointed to the 2020 California Court futures Commission. She maintains a limited private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction

    • Make Your Own Custody Decisions If Possible
    • What If We Need Outside Help?
    • Balancing Parenting and Financial Issues
    • Why This Book Is Unique
    • A Word to Skeptics
    • What If You Just Want to Fight?

    Part I: Getting Started

    1. Taking Stock of Your Situation

    • You Are Not Alone
    • Keep Your Parenting Plan Focused on Your Children
    • It Gets Easier Over Time
    • Learn How to Negotiate
    • If the Other Parent Is Absent
    • If There Is Violence or Abuse
    • Looking Ahead: The Right Solution?

    2. An Introduction to Parenting Agreements

    • What Parenting Agreements Cover
    • Advantages of Parent-Negotiated Agreements
    • Goals of a Successful Parenting Agreement
    • Parenting Agreements and Custody

    3. Getting Organized

    • Organize and Review Documents
    • Completing the Worksheets
    • Sample Worksheets

    4. How to Negotiate a Parenting Agreement

    • Knowing What You Need and Want
    • When Conflict Gets in the Way
    • Using Effective Negotiation and Problem-Solving Strategies
    • Breaking Through Impasses
    • Knowing Where to Get Help and Support

    Part II: Your Parenting Agreement

    5. Building Your Agreement

    • Where to Begin
    • Cooperate! Cooperate! Cooperate!
    • Get Outside Help
    • Keep Your Agreement Current

    6. Basic Elements

    • Issue 1: Where Our Children Will Live
    • Issue 2: Medical, Dental, and Vision Care
    • Issue 3: Negative Comments or Remarks
    • Issue 4: Consistency in Raising Children
    • Issue 5: Holidays
    • Issue 6: Education
    • Issue 7: Insurance
    • Issue 8: Making Decisions
    • Issue 9: Resolving Disputes
    • Issue 10: Labeling the Custody Arrangement

    7. More Parenting Issues

    • Issue 11: Exchanging Information
    • Issue 12: Child Care
    • Issue 13: Special Occasions and Family Events
    • Issue 14: Vacations
    • Issue 15: Outside Activities
    • Issue 16: Transportation Between Parents’ Homes
    • Issue 17: Improving Transition Times
    • Issue 18: Maintaining Contact
    • Issue 19: Grandparents, Relatives, and Important Friends
    • Issue 20: Psychiatric and Other Mental Health Care
    • Issue 21: Religious Training
    • Issue 22: Surname
    • Issue 23: Treating Each Child as an Individual
    • Issue 24: Separating the Adult Relationship Issues From the Parenting Issues
    • Issue 25: Making Routine Changes
    • Issue 26: Making Big Changes
    • Issue 27: Explaining the Agreement to Your Children

    8. Serious Situations

    • Issue 28: Domestic Violence, Child Abuse, and Child Neglect
    • Issue 29: Alcohol or Drug Abuse
    • Issue 30: Undermining the Parent-Child Relationship
    • Issue 31: Denying Access to the Children
    • Issue 32: If Extended Family Members or Close Friends Are Fueling the Dispute

    9. Special Challenges

    • Issue 33: Moving
    • Issue 34: When Parenting Styles and Values Differ
    • Issue 35: When a Parent Needs Help With Parenting Skills
    • Issue 36: When Parents Have New Partners
    • Issue 37: If Our Homes Are Far Apart
    • Issue 38: Roommates
    • Issue 39: Reinvolving a Parent Who Has Been Absent
    • Issue 40: Driving and Owning a Car, Motorcycle, or Off-Road Vehicle
    • Issue 41: International Travel and Passports
    • Issue 42: Military Service
    • Issue 43: Allowing Underage Marriage
    • Issue 44: Pandemics and Other Emergencies

    Part III: Beyond Your Parenting Agreement

    10. Child Support, Alimony, and Jointly Held Property

    • Understanding Child Support
    • Understanding Alimony or Spousal Support
    • Negotiating Child and Spousal Support
    • Dividing Jointly Owned Property

    11. Making Mediation and Arbitration Work for You

    • How Mediation Works
    • Why Mediation Works
    • Proposing Mediation
    • Understanding Basic Mediation Techniques
    • Why Mediation Works in Very Difficult Cases
    • What Mediators Don’t Do
    • Choosing Between Court-Ordered and Private Mediation
    • When the Mediator Makes a Recommendation to the Court
    • Custody Investigations and Evaluations
    • Choosing a Mediator
    • Preparing for Mediation
    • If You Can’t Reach an Agreement
    • Alternatives to Mediation

    12. Making Changes

    • Why Changes Are Necessary—And How to Handle Them
    • When You Are the One Initiating Change
    • When You Are the One Responding to a Request for Change
    • When Tensions Are Running High
    • What to Do After You Negotiate Changes
    • Adopt a Positive Outlook

    13. Understanding Your Children’s Needs

    • Strategies for Your Children at Any Age
    • Strategies for Your Children at Different Ages and Developmental Stages
    • Strategies for Children With Special Needs

    14. Multiracial, Multicultural, and International Families

    • Accommodating Differences in Child-Rearing Practices
    • Encouraging Children to Celebrate the Traditions of Both Parents
    • Sorting Out the Role of Power Within the Family
    • Working Within the American Legal System
    • Deciding Whether Another Country Has Authority Over Parenting (Custody) Issues

    15. Nontraditional Families

    • What Are Nontraditional Families?
    • The Legal Relationship of Nontraditional Parents and Children
    • Recognizing the Nontraditional Parent’s Role
    • Resolving Conflict in a Way That Meets Your Family’s Needs
    • Creating New Relationships After the Divorce or Separation

    16. State and Federal Laws Affecting Child Custody

    • Custody and Visitation
    • Best Interests of the Child
    • Mediation
    • Interference With Custody
    • Interstate Custody and Child Support Disputes
    • International Custody Disputes
    • Custody and the IRS

    17. Help Beyond the Book

    • Researching Legal Issues
    • Researching Nonlegal Issues
    • Research on the Internet
    • Finding Professionals Who Can Help
    • Additional Resources

    Appendix A: How to Use the Downloadable Forms on the Nolo Website

    • Editing RTFs
    • List of Forms

    Appendix B: Forms

    • Worksheet 1: Describe Your Child
    • Worksheet 2: Describe Your Relationship With Your Child
    • Worksheet 3: Adding the Details
    • Worksheet 4: Checklist of Issues for Your Parenting Agreement
    • Parenting Agreement


  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 1: Taking Stock of Your Situation

    Before you get started on your parenting plan, you should understand the context in which your parenting decisions will be made.

    You Are Not Alone

    Since the middle of the last century, the expectation that two people would meet in their late teens or early 20s, marry, raise a family, and grow old together has changed. What remains constant, however, is that children need parents who love and care for them, make good decisions on their behalf, and provide safe and stable homes for them as they grow up. This is true whether a child’s parents are married, unmarried, separated, divorced, single without partners, part of a same-sex couple, related by blood, or related by adoption.

    Parents face many challenges today, but there are lots of resources out there that can help. For many parents who are separating or divorcing, the most significant challenge is keeping their adult relationship struggles from getting in the way of parenting issues. While you cannot and should not shield your children from every single difficulty in life, it is important to stay focused on the fact that divorce is an adult solution to adult problems.

    Family, friends, counselors, support groups, and others can make it easier for you to get help dealing with the end of your marriage or partnership. Resources are available to help you learn about what children need, and how you and the other parent can continue to meet those needs even though you are no longer together as a romantic couple.

    Keep Your Parenting Plan Focused on Your Children

    You and your children’s other parent are about to undertake a difficult but very important project: making the best possible decisions about your parenting arrangements. Of course, it might be hard to separate your desire to have nothing more to do with your ex from the task of making decisions that are in your children’s interest.

    Even if your separation or divorce will be better for your children in the long run, in the short term, most children feel that things are worse. Divorce or separation can shake children’s confidence that they will continue to be loved, cared for, and safe when their parents stop living together. This is true even when children understand the reasons behind the decision.

    You and the other parent can help your children by using this book to develop an agreement that focuses on meeting each child’s individual needs. The more attention you pay to your child’s needs, the more likely you are to build an agreement that works for all of you.

    At the beginning of this process, you and the other parent must honestly assess your relationship as parents, and your ability to work together to understand and address your children’s needs. This includes being willing to trust each other and set aside your anger, frustration, and pain, at least for a while. If you’ve just separated, you might think it will be impossible to trust and cooperate with the other parent.

    Many find, though, that trusting and cooperative relationships evolve over time. The approach outlined here can help both parents find ways to build on points of agreement and craft a comprehensive parenting plan.

    Dealing With Grief, Anger, Pain, Relief, Fear, and Other Messy Emotions

    Some compare the end of a marriage or committed relationship to a death. The dreams that most of us bring to our relationships are huge. Add a child or children into the mix, and the combination is powerful indeed. Losing those dreams or seeing them fade away will stir powerful emotions in both parents. Add to this mix of emotions the children’s worries, losses, and pain, and your divorce is likely to be a very difficult time—at least at the beginning.

    Is all of this “normal”? Yes! In many respects, it would be strange if the changes associated with separation or divorce were not terribly difficult at first—even for the person who ends the relationship.

    Try to make space for experiencing your emotions, for not knowing exactly how you feel, or for wondering whether you will ever feel “normal” again. This is a time to seek support.

    Powerful emotions are just part of the territory when relationships change or end. It’s when you feel alone that the feelings can take over your world in an unhealthy way. Find good friends, relatives, a religious counselor, or a trained mental health professional who can hear what you are feeling and help keep things in perspective. In time, the initial pain and turmoil will lessen, and you will be able to move on to a more balanced frame of mind. Remember to look for support for your child as well. Even children who feel best confiding in their parents might need additional support.


    It Gets Easier Over Time

    Separation or divorce can be traumatic, and many people behave irrationally or seem unstable when a relationship first changes. As time passes, however, most parents regain their balance.

    Let’s look more closely at the typical emotional stages parents go through when they separate, and see how these stages might affect each parent’s ability to reach an effective, child-focused parenting plan.

    The First Few Weeks

    Just before and just after the initial separation, you might feel confused by a seemingly endless number of decisions you need to make, each of which appears to be the most important. You will probably ride a roller coaster of emotions. On any given day you might have intense feelings of rage, depression, abandonment, relief, grief, guilt, and excitement. In fact, you might decide that ending a relationship, or having one ended for you, has you feeling like you are going a bit “crazy.”

    This is not the time to worry about charting a permanent course for your children’s future. Instead, try to develop one or more short-term agreements that will allow you, the other parent, and your children to settle into the new arrangements gradually. By taking it slowly, you will have time to see what works and what needs to be changed. The key to success is to develop a clear, child-centered plan that each parent can easily follow.

    Divorce and Separation Aren’t Only About Ending an Intimate Relationship

    Separation and divorce occur on many levels— emotional, financial, legal, social, and intimate. You and the other parent need to think about how you will manage all aspects of splitting up. Your children will benefit most when you can keep them out of the middle of adult issues.

    As you and the other parent learn how to navigate new and separate lives, you will find that you are better able to chart your own course, and you will see the good results of your efforts. In fact, the parents who express the greatest levels of satisfaction with their parenting agreements are those who take the time to negotiate comprehensive, child-focused agreements that both parents can support.


    Resources are available to help parents cope at the beginning of a separation or divorce. See Chapter 17 for references.

    The First Few Months

    Several months after the initial separation, your life will probably be a little calmer, but you might find that your relationship with the other parent can still provoke either or both of you in extreme and unexpected ways. Many parents find it hard to distance themselves from each other when they need to stay in contact because they share children. Your children can be a constant reminder of what has gone on (or has gone wrong) and what remains to be done. You might be experimenting with a new partner or a new approach to life. You might feel annoyed if the other parent’s presence puts a damper on your newfound freedom.

    At the other end of the spectrum, you or the other parent might still feel as angry, sad, powerless, or abandoned as you did when you first separated.

    If you try to negotiate a parenting plan during this phase, you might find it extremely difficult to reach agreement on any but the smallest issues. Many parents, nevertheless, negotiate temporary parenting arrangements early on, especially to resolve a particular issue, such as where the children will attend school. These parents can start with Chapter 6, “Basic Elements,” and address only the most pressing issues until they are ready to handle more.

    One Year Later

    A year or more after the initial separation, you’re probably more clear-headed about your situation than you were at the beginning. You and the other parent will have direct experience building and living with your first (or temporary) parenting arrangements. You can gauge the effects that these arrangements have had on your life and on your children. At this point, you will probably be ready to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement, and can turn to Chapter 7, “More Parenting Issues,” to add whatever provisions you need.

    The Second Year and Beyond

    Two years or more following a separation, most families have settled into a stable parenting arrangement. At about this time, many parents realize their arrangements need a few adjustments to accommodate the unavoidable changes that life brings. In fact, many mediators report that families often renegotiate their first parenting agreements at this two-year point.

    No matter what stage of the separation you are in, you can count on things to change. Nobody—not you, the other parent, or your children—can (or should) expect the first agreement to be the last one. Certain parts of your agreement will work for the long term, while others will need to be revised regularly.

    One of the most common reasons parents have to revise their first agreement is the presence of a parent’s new partner. Children often have strong opinions about new stepparents, boyfriends, or girlfriends. And when one parent has a new partner—especially the parent with whom the children primarily live—the other parent might need reassurance that the new partner won’t be seen as a replacement parent.

    Other changes that can trigger the need for modification of an existing arrangement include:

    • a parent’s desire to move because of a new job or to be closer to relatives
    • a child’s special needs
    • a change in schools, activities, or schedules, and
    • a child’s desire to live with the other parent.

    Learn How to Negotiate

    Negotiation is the process of reaching an agreement acceptable to the people involved. The more successful the negotiation, the more acceptable the agreement. Negotiation is especially important because:

    • Most parents tend to be involved with their children, at some level, well into their early adulthood. Parents who stay involved in their children’s lives must find a way to get comfortable with seeing each other from time to time, and with needing to work together for their child’s benefit.
    • Children usually want to maintain a relationship with both parents—and they suffer when their parents constantly fight. The better the parents are at negotiating solutions to their differences, the better their relationships with their children will be.
    • When parents are unable to agree on basic or critical decisions about their children’s health, education, and welfare, a court will step in and impose decisions. These decisions, though aimed at protecting and preserving the best interests of the children, might be very different from what the parents want or feel is appropriate.

    Learn more about negotiating your parenting agreement in Chapter 4.

    Using Mediation to Help You Negotiate

    You can negotiate a parenting agreement in several different ways. Some parents resolve the issues on their own. Others ask a counselor to help, work with attorneys, or use mediation. Mediation is very different from court. The mediator’s job is to help you and the other parent identify and plan for solving the most important issues in ways that everyone can live with. Mediation is also valuable because no one is in a position to force you to make decisions the way they think is best. If parents cannot agree, the law requires courts—or court-appointed specialists—to make the decisions.

    Mediation is available in all states, either through the court or from private practitioners, and has become very popular—particularly for resolving family conflicts—because it is less adversarial than courtroom litigation. There’s more detail about mediation in Chapter 11.


    If the Other Parent Is Absent

    This book assumes that both parents are at least minimally involved in their children’s lives. This, however, might not be true in your case. Some parents leave their families and are never heard from for months, years, or ever again. Others are around so infrequently that they have effectively abandoned their families. If this describes your situation, you will probably need the help of an attorney to get a divorce (if you’re legally married) and to obtain child support.

    If you need help with day-to-day parenting, consider asking one of the children’s grandparents, a favorite aunt or uncle, or a very close friend for support. Building, or strengthening, these kinds of relationships can help both you and your children.

    If There Is Violence or Abuse

    Domestic violence, child abuse, and child neglect are, unfortunately, a fact of life for many in the United States. For some, these events are limited to the period leading up to and during the separation or divorce. For others, a separation or divorce is the only solution to a history of violence, abuse, or neglect.

    Physical violence, threats of violence, and sexual abuse are illegal in the United States. And some actions—or inactions—amount to illegal child neglect. This kind of criminal behavior isn’t excused by cultural or religious heritage, citizenship status, or personal beliefs about discipline or the proper relationship between husbands and wives.

    If you or your children are experiencing physical violence (including threats), sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect by the other parent, safety must be your first concern. You must protect yourself and your children by getting whatever emotional, legal, or other help you need. You’ll need to start with a plan for how you will stay safe while you develop a solid parenting agreement.

    Beware! The time when a person chooses to get help, leave an abusive relationship, or get a restraining order can be the most dangerous time of all. This is because some abusers might try to hurt or scare their partners as a way to stop them from leaving, or from involving “outsiders” in “family” or “private” matters.

    Safety plans should always include:

    • where all family members will live
    • whether any family member’s whereabouts will be kept secret (and, if so, from whom)
    • whether legal protection (such as a civil protection or restraining order) is necessary
    • whether visits with an abusive parent will be supervised, and
    • how each affected person will get emotional support.

    Situations involving violence or abuse call for outside help. (See Chapters 4, 8, and 17 for more advice and resources.) Most of the information in this book assumes that your family situation is conducive to negotiating and reaching a parenting agreement. But what about mediation in violent or potentially violent situations? Some professionals actively discourage victims of domestic violence from getting involved in mediation, family counseling, or other non-court proceedings where abusers and their victims meet face to face. This is because there can be significant power imbalances between people who have been involved in domestic violence. Advocates worry that victims can be too intimidated by abusers to effectively represent their own interests, or to protect their children’s interests.

    In more extreme cases, experts believe that any type of negotiations regarding custody and visitation with someone who has committed domestic violence is inappropriate because it might suggest that the violence is somehow excusable. To address these concerns, some states (especially those that require mediation for custody and visitation disputes) allow victims of domestic violence either to skip mediation or to attend mediation sessions where the victim and abuser are in different locations and the mediator negotiates with each of them separately. Whether meeting together or separately, some domestic violence victims feel better if they are accompanied by a trained support person. Several states require a judge to deny custody or unsupervised visitation to an abuser unless the judge can say why visitation is safe and in the child’s best interests.

    You can find more information on how to understand and handle physical and emotional abuse issues in Chapters 4, 8, and 17. After you have found a way to address these safety issues, you can try to use this book to build a parenting agreement that can help you now and over time as the situation changes or improves.

    Looking Ahead: The Right Solution?

    Families that have lived through separation and divorce are NOT “broken.” They are different, for sure, but broken? If you talk to people several years past their separation or divorce, you are very likely to hear that, while it was hard at the beginning, some things got much better. The lack of constant fighting and arguing is typically the first and biggest win people experience, but many report that they and the other parent have even gotten better at relating to their children.

    Separation and divorce are adult solutions to adult problems. When approached with a willingness to work hard and to separate the adult relationship issues from the parenting issues, people are often surprised to find treasures in this transition too! One way or another, it makes sense to look for silver linings in the dark clouds that typify separation and divorce. It’s not a walk in the park, but it can be the right solution to some problems.

    We hope you enjoyed this sample chapter. The complete book is available for sale here at

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