Sometimes co-parents are able to work out terms and schedules that work for them and their family, without having the court involved. In these cases we are often asked – “Do I still need an attorney?” It’s always advisable to have an attorney review or draft your agreement to fill in any vague terms, ensure statutory requirements are met, and to plan for the “what ifs” of life.
Every custody and visitation agreement needs to include a few essential elements. The first is a determination of the form of legal custody the parents will have. Joint legal custody gives both parents an equal say in any issues regarding the child’s health, education, or general welfare. It means parents need to be on the same page regarding vaccination, school selection, religion, and other important matters that will impact the child. At times, parents may not see eye to eye, so having an understanding of each parents’ rights and impact is essential. In some instances, parties may agree that one parent has sole legal custody or final decisionmaking authority, with respect to certain issues.
In addition to the legal custody determination, parties need to establish physical custody. If the child will be living with one parent the majority of the time, that parent will have primary physical custody. If the parties will be sharing time somewhat equally, they may have shared physical custody. In those cases, parents also need to be clear about where the child will attend school and which address is “primary” for school registration purposes.
A visitation schedule should be included in any custody agreement. Some parents are able to work out terms more casually, but it’s always advisable to include more detail and allow parents to agree to changes as they are necessary. It should be clear which parent will have the child when, and how the child will be transported back and forth for any visitation period.
Some parents elect to limit the methods by which they communicate with each other. Using a third party app can improve communication and keep a clear record of when correspondence was sent, read, and responded to, reducing or eliminating disputes.
Parents may include specific details and contingency plans if things change in the future. For example, if the parties live close to one another, they may agree that if one parent moves outside of a certain radius they will reevaluate the custodial schedule.
Any custody and visitation agreement should be submitted to court for entry as an order. A contract does carry some enforceability, but in an emergency, a court order will be essential. At that point it will take time to process the paperwork and establish a custodial order that can be enforced.
Once the parties have reached an agreement, they should sign and notarize an original version of the contract for submission to the court. When the court processes the petitions, the agreement will be sent to the judge for review before it is entered as a court order. An attorney can advise parents how to best file their petitions to have them processed through the court appropriately in their jurisdiction.
Parties may plan for some future “what ifs” in their agreement, but many future changes are too speculative to plan for. Parents can agree that if circumstances change in the future, they will first try to negotiate a change or mediate an agreement before petitioning the court for a modification of custody. Parents can even agree how mediation costs will be split if a change is requested. These additional terms can prevent unnecessary petitions to modify and ensure each parent attempts to act reasonably in the process.
Melone Hatley, P.C. is a family and estate firm serving Virginia Beach and Northern Virginia. Our philosophy is to provide all of our clients with the highest quality legal representation, innovative legal solutions, and unsurpassed dedication to customer service. Through our high standards, we strive to be a trusted resource to our clients.
We know from experience that a successful attorney-client relationship depends on our ability to understand your needs and objectives. For more information about separation and divorce, contact our Reston office today at 703.995.9900 or Virginia Beach at 757.296.0580 or visit our website: www.melonehatley.com.