When Gays and Lesbians Break Up: Creating a Parenting Plan for Separate Households

by Katharine Swan

Co-parenting after a breakup is difficult for many gay and lesbian parents, as both parties need to be willing to synchronize their lives for the sake of the children. Since in many GLBT families only one partner is the legal parent, there is typically no court decision forcing them to get along for the sake of the child. Faced with a lack of options, many gay and lesbian parents use parenting plans to navigate the difficult waters of parenting after a breakup.

Balancing Act

What is a Parenting Plan?

A parenting plan is a document that spells out each parent’s rights and responsibilities – financial and otherwise – after a breakup. Often used in addition to custody rulings, a parenting plan can also be used by gay and lesbian parents to co-parent amicably after a breakup without going through the courts.

It must be noted that a parenting plan is primarily a tool for negotiating parenting responsibilities after a breakup, rather than a legally binding document. If the non-legal parent tries to sue for parental rights, the court may or may not recognize the parenting plan as proof that he or she is the child’s “psychological parent.” For this reason, it is extremely important that gay and lesbian parents be completely committed to co-parenting, even if – especially if – the relationship ends.

What Should Gay and Lesbian Parents Include in a Parenting Plan?

Since a parenting plan is meant to facilitate the day-to-day realities of co-parenting after a breakup, most have quite a bit of detail. Here are the main points that gay and lesbian parents should be sure to include in their parenting plan.

  • Intent to co-parent. This part should be the first and most important part of the parenting plan. It clearly states that both partners consider themselves the parents of the child, and that they intend to fully share the rights and responsibilities associated with parenting.
  • Decision-making. In custody cases, this is called “legal custody,” but of course in the case of gay or lesbian parents one parent may already have sole legal custody. GLBT family etiquette requires that family bonds be valued higher than legal ones, so the parenting plan should indicate whether both partners intend to make all decisions jointly.
  • Physical/residential custody. Another important point is where the child is going to live. If GLBT partners decide to share physical or residential custody, this means that the child will be spending roughly half his or her time at each parent’s house. The parenting plan should spell out, to the letter, the schedule for when the child will live with each parent.
  • Visitation. If one parent takes primary physical or residential custody, the parenting plan will need to set a visitation schedule. For instance, a typical visitation schedule allows the other parent to take the child every other weekend.
  • Property. Even in the most amicable of breakups, gay and lesbian parents may find any excuse to quibble with one another. A common point of contention is where the child’s property is to be kept. Some parents may want to require that the child keep certain possessions at each home, while others may want to allow the child to decide where to keep his or her belongings.
  • Childcare arrangements. The parenting plan needs to spell out how childcare arrangements will be made. For instance, gay and lesbian parents may want to specify that if babysitting is needed while one parent has the child, the other parent should always be given first dibs before someone else is brought in to do it.
  • Vacation, holiday, and birthday arrangements. It is only natural for each parent to want their child with them on special occasions, so typically parenting plans set up a schedule where each parent gets the child for alternating holidays. The plan may require that both parents spend the child’s birthday with him or her, or that they alternate birthdays as well. In a case where the parents share joint custody, they will generally share vacations as well; but in cases where one parent has physical custody, the other usually gets the child for an extended period of time during vacations.
  • Exchanging the child. The parenting plan should also spell out who is responsible for transporting the child (usually the parent who is beginning their time with the child), where the exchange is to be made, and so on.
  • Education. When gay and lesbian parents share custody of a school-aged child, it is important that the parenting plan takes the child’s education into consideration. For instance, the parenting plan might specify that the child be in the same school all year, or that both parents are agreeing to chip in to put the child through a private school. Also, the parenting plan should note that school attendance is mandatory, require that parents share information such as absences and grades with one another, and specify who is to attend parent-teacher conferences.
  • Religion. Since religion can be an especially sensitive point, the parenting plan should specify what religious instruction the child will be given, and who is responsible for seeing to it.
  • Punishment. Punishment is another sensitive point, so the parenting plan should spell out what punishment methods the parents plan to use. If corporeal punishment is to be used, for the non-legal parent’s protection the parenting plan should specify who is allowed to use it.
  • Stepparents. Gay and lesbian parents shouldn’t be afraid to get into another committed relationship after a breakup, so it is important that the parenting plan provide some protection for the child’s stepparents. The agreement should therefore clearly state that stepparents are allowed to care for the child by doing things such as dressing them, bathing them, and driving them places when necessary.
  • Financial arrangements. Of course, co-parenting after a breakup is about more than simply who has the right to do what – it’s also about who is going to pay for all of this. Parents may split expenses down the middle, make each parent responsible for certain expenses, or each contribute an amount that is determined by income. An easy way to do this is to open a joint account for the child’s expenses, which both parents contribute to as specified in the parenting plan.
  • Health insurance. The parenting plan should specify who is responsible for providing health insurance coverage for the child. In LGBT families, usually only one parent is the legal parent, so in these cases health insurance will automatically become that parent’s responsibility.
  • Medical needs. The parenting plan should require both parents to discuss the child’s health care with one another, and it should also be accompanied with a document, signed by the legal parent, that allows the non-legal parent to seek health care and make medical decisions for the child. In addition, the parenting plan should specify that whichever parent has the care of the child at the time of a medical or dental emergency, that parent is responsible for getting it taken care of.
  • Relocation. Relocation can be a problem in divided homes, so parenting plans often require that one parent cannot move more than a certain distance away without the written consent of both parents.
  • Resolution of conflict. No matter how thorough the parenting plan is, there are bound to be disagreements at some point. The parenting plan should first of all specify that the parents are to discuss the issue privately; but it also needs to outline a method for dispute resolution. For instance, the parenting plan could specify the name of a GLBT-friendly individual or an organization who is to act as an arbitrator in the case of a disagreement. Also, the parenting plan should specify that the results of the arbitration should be put into writing.
  • Modification of parenting plan. LGBT families’ needs are always changing, even when those families live in two separate households. The parenting plan should be flexible and open to modification, but it should also specify that any changes made should be put into writing.

Final Notes about Parenting Plans

Just like any informal agreement, a parenting plan is only as good as the parents’ intentions to adhere to it. Courts almost always favor the legal parent in gay and lesbian custody disputes, which is unfair not only to the non-legal parent, but also to the children involved. Therefore it is supremely important for the parties involved to set aside their differences and remember that even if they aren’t partners anymore, they will always be parents together.

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