In Arizona, when parents are no longer married or not living together in paternity matters, they may have an agreement for parenting their children (legal decision making) and parenting time for when each parent will be with their children. The agreement may be a written agreement that they mutually agreed upon or they could have had the family law courts enter an order directing how they would parent and their respective parenting time. In Arizona legal decision making includes the following:
- Parents may have joint legal decision-making meaning both parents are actively involving in making decisions for the children.
- Parents may have joint legal decision-making with one parent having final decision making authority meaning if the parents cannot agree on an issue then one parent can make a final decision to resolve the issue.
- One parent may have sole legal decision-making meaning that parent can make the major decisions regarding the children.
Parenting time is either agreed upon by the parents or directed by the family law courts. Assuming there are two fit parents, the court will generally strive for substantially equal parenting time, based on the “best interest of the children”. Equal parenting time plans can be very different based on the needs of the family and children. Parenting time plans regularly discussed include the following:
- 2-2-3 schedule. This plan is normally used for younger children because the children will only spend a maximum of three (3) days away from either parent. The plan works like this in week one F will have the children Monday and Tuesday, M will have the children Wednesday and Thursday and F will have the children Friday through Sunday. Week 2, M will have the children Monday and Tuesday, F will have the children Wednesday and Thursday and M will have the children Friday through Sunday.
- 5-2-2-5 schedule. This plan is a middle ground wherby one parent will have the children every Monday and Tuesday and the other parent will have the children every Wednesday and Thursday. The weekends alternate from Friday to Monday morning.
- Week on week off schedule: This plan is straight forward whereby each parent will have the children for one week and then the other parent has a week.
Parents frequently consider changes to their parenting time agreement as circumstances, residences, employment and ages of the children all change. One of the good things available in Arizona is the ability of the parents to mutually agree to modify their parenting time without needing to go to court or get attorneys. It is important to distinguish between parents just being flexible to allow changes for special occasions and changes that are long term. So, if you agree to minor changes for special occasions then a written agreement is not necessary, but confirmation of the agreement is in both parents best interest to avoid any miscommunications. However, any time there is a long-term change then the agreement should be in writing and should be submitted to the court to avoid any issues in the future.
Co-parenting is important for the children’s well-being. Positive and cooperative co-parenting is always in the best interest of the children. Seeing their parent’s ability to amicably resolve their differences – and keeping the child as their top priority – provides positive role models for the children and creates emotionally healthy children. When possible, this is the best approach. High parental conflict has shown to have long term negative impact not only on the children’s emotional and mental health, but also on their physical health even into adulthood.
At all times, parents should focus on the needs of their children, not their personal needs. Children should not be used as bartering chips, means to threaten the other parent, or to perpetrate other negative acts; not only is this type of behavior not in the best interest of the children it will also not present well to the court if litigation becomes necessary. While parents may not have positive feelings towards one another, discussions about parenting time should remain focused on the needs of the children and should not include any of the respective emotional baggage of one or both parents. Additionally, these discussions should never be held in front of the children or communicated through the children.
If a parenting time conflict cannot be resolved between the parents, then they have two choices. First, the underlying divorce decree or most recent parenting plan agreement applies. Secondly, one of the parents may decide to file with the family law courts for a post-decree modification to change the parenting plan. Many decrees have a mediation provision that requires the parents to mediate the issue prior to having the court resolve the issue. However, mediation is always going to be a better result than having the court decide as the parents should always know what is in the children’s best interest.
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