What if both parents agree on child custody and visitation arrangements?

In all jurisdictions throughout the United States, courts strongly encourage parents who are separating to try to come to a reasonable agreement regarding child custody and visitation. It is generally believed that parents can do a better job than the court in deciding what is right for their child and their family. As such, when two parents make a child custody and visitation agreement on their own, the court is going to be responsive in formalizing that agreement and making it legal. 

How can parents work together to establish a child custody and visitation agreement?

When two parents are able to come to a child custody and visitation agreement on their own, this is often referred to as a "parenting plan." The parents can submit this parenting plan to family court, either as part of a divorce settlement or as a stand-alone agreement if the two parties were never married. The court may review the agreement to ensure there was no coercion or no history of abuse or neglect that could indicate that the agreement is not in the best interests of the child. Provided there are no compelling reasons not to approve the agreement, the court will formalize it as presented. 

Once a child custody and visitation arrangement has been formalized by the court, it becomes legally binding, even if the parents came up with the agreement themselves. The parents must abide by their agreement, allowing visitation and sharing child custody as described within it. If one parent later does not follow the agreement, the other parent can return to court to have it enforced.

Can a child custody and visitation agreement be changed?

If both parents can amicably agree to a change in the child custody and visitation agreement, the court will recognize that change in the new formal arrangement. Should this prove impossible, then the parent who wants a change will generally need to prove to the court that some material change in circumstance has resulted in the original agreement no longer being in the best interests of the child.

If agreeing becomes difficult but the parents are still committing to establishing a workable parenting plan, working with an independent third party mediator or counselor is often a less eexpensive alternative than going to court.  If you do intend to work out your own child custody and visitation agreement, it is still in your best interests to have a lawyer. A lawyer can help you to keep emotions out of the discussion when forming your visitation and child custody agreement. He or she can also assist you in ensuring your legal rights are protected.