Going through a divorce is a very difficult and emotional experience, and it is only more difficult and emotional when there are children involved. From my experience, the younger the children are when parents get divorced, the more difficulty parents have in determining issues such as parenting time and decision-making. Additionally, older children (think high-school age) tend to
be given more deference in making certain decisions when younger children generally have no say.
When parents get divorced, a Permanent Parenting Plan is entered with the Court, which details the day-to-day parenting schedule, the holiday parenting schedule, decision-making, child support, and other financial information. In theory, creating a Permanent Parenting Plan for a child who is 16 years old at the time of the divorce should be easier, because in just two years, that child will be an adult, and most of the Permanent Parenting Plan (save for health insurance) will stop applying. However, coming up with a Permanent Parenting Plan for a four-year-old is much more difficult. As much as we want to believe divorce attorneys can predict the future – unfortunately we can’t – which makes it very hard to devise a Permanent Parenting Plan to take this child from four years old all the way to 18 and graduating from high school. When a child is that young, parents don’t know where they’ll be going to middle school or what extracurricular activities they will be interested in.
The thing to always remember is that this document is modifiable. What parents decide when their child is four years old can be changed as the child gets older. Below I’ll help you navigate the sections of the parenting plan and discuss why parents may want to modify the plans, and how to go about doing so.
One of the most contentious areas of a Permanent Parenting Plan is child support. Unless there is an agreement otherwise, one parent will have to pay the other monthly child support. The state of Tennessee has guidelines that the Court follows in determining the amount paid per month. In fact, there’s an excel spreadsheet online where you fill in the applicable information, and the algorithm shoots out a number for child support. There are numerous factors that go into determining the amount of child support, but the three biggest factors are (1) number of day each parent has with the children, (2) gross monthly income of both parents, and (3) cost of the children’s health insurance.
Generally, child support can only be modified if the change in the monthly amount paid either increases or decreases by 15%. This means that just because a parent starts to earn more money, or because the cost of health insurance changes, it does not mean that child support automatically gets modified. You will have to calculate the monthly amount using the spreadsheet and see if the new amount meets the 15% variation. Every parenting plan contains language ensuring that each parent exchanges their W2 with the other every year. If one parent gets a raise, or a new job, and makes more money, it’s time to investigate possibly modifying the child support obligation.
Another extremely contentious area of the permanent parenting plan is the parenting schedule itself. This is the first section of the parenting plan, and it lays out not only the day-to-day parenting schedule, but the holiday and vacation schedule as well. As I stated in the previous section, older children (think high school age) are going to be given more deference in certain
decision making than a four year old. A high schooler may have their own car and be able to transport themselves to and from school and to and from each parent’s home.
For example, when devising a parenting schedule for a very young child, parents are not going to necessarily know what school the child will be attending for middle school, what extracurricular activities or sports teams the child will be playing on, or even their own work schedule in the next five to ten years.
If the divorcing parents are able to communicate with each other in a healthy way, they might be able to simply talk to each other about modifying the day-to-day schedule as needed. However, many parents, unfortunately, are unable to be civil with each other and need the Court to intervene. If this is the case, the parent who wishes to modify the parenting schedule will need to prove to the Court that it is in the best interest of the child to do so.
Unless there is some extenuating circumstance, most likely parents will have joint decision-making authority. This can lead to a lot of conflict, though, because what happens when they inevitably disagree? Day-to-day decisions, like what the child has for lunch and having a playdate after school, are in the hands of whichever parent has scheduled parenting time.
There are four major areas of decision-making authority that get their own designations: educational decisions, non-emergency healthcare, extra-curricular activities, and religious upbringing. Generally, one parent will either be a “tie-breaker” or in the event of a disagreement, mediation may be required. However, there are ways to deal with disagreements without going
back to mediation. These caveats should be detailed in writing in the parenting plan. If there’s no agreement on where the child goes to school, the child should enroll in whichever district the primary parent lives. If there’s no agreement on non-emergency healthcare, parents should defer to the doctor’s opinion. For extra-curricular activities, it’s easiest to have the parents split the
cost of one activity per semester, and for religious upbringing, each parent can take the child to the house of worship of their choosing during their parenting time.
To Wrap Up
Going through a divorce with children involved just makes it that much more difficult. The parenting plan is very detailed and sometimes hard to navigate, especially when there are multiple children. It’s important to have a zealous advocate in your corner when going through this process, to make your life easier and your stress level lower.
Hillary Samuels is a native Memphian, specializing in Estate Planning and Family Law at HSK. She and her husband had their first baby in early 2022. After their daughter was born, Hillary realized how important it was to support parents through their hard times. She is currently accepting new clients, and you can reach her at [email protected] or at 901-866-5333.