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Parenting Plans Should Be Custom Tailored To Each Family's Unique Situation

Cynthia M. Fox

Clients often assume that once their divorce is final, the arguments, miscommunication and general unpleasantness will be behind them. However, many divorced couples with children know better. When the judge gaveled their marriage into extinction, it simply set the stage for a new set of disagreements-over "Johnny" going to his grandmother's birthday party, what school he will attend, or how his "special needs" are going to be met.

This article will focus on 3 elements of a parenting plan, which St. Louis County requires in divorces involving minor children, that I think are the most crucial:
  • The scheduling of custody time between the parents
  • Planning for the child's education, including college
  • Addressing how medical needs are going to be met, including being sure that health insurance is provided
Of all the post-divorce parenting issues, I get the most calls from mothers/fathers complaining that their former spouse isn't honoring the custody schedule contained in the divorce decree. Many times that seems to be the case as one parent or the other brings "little Susie" back late from a weekend visit, or doesn't have her ready at the appointed time.

Often, though, the disagreement centers on situations not addressed by the county's sample plan. For example, the holidays are the traditional national and Christian ones and may not match the religious and ethnic traditions of some families. Couples with jobs with unusual hours, or where the work shifts change, are saddled with rigidly prescribed visitation schedules.

The important message: Put together a schedule uniquely matched to the idiosyncrasies of your family's life.

Who's Paying for Susie's Education, Anyway?

When it comes to education, the default setting is that children attend the public schools that serve the address listed for them in the decree, unless the parents agree to an alternative. Generally, the listed address will be that of the parent with primary physical custody. If the child is to attend a private school, this should be agreed to in the parenting plan.

Importantly, the plan should specify how the expense of private schooling is to be shared. Doing this in an enforceable way requires using special words of art (called the "Echele language"), which apply to all non-public school expense before college, as well as for college or trade school expenses.

Medical Treatment Nightmares

Couples awarded joint legal custody should be sure they agree on how medical matters are going to be handled. That's because in Missouri non-emergency care cannot be given to a child if one of the parents having joint legal custody objects to any particular treatment. For routine matters, the medical provider typically has no idea if the care has the support of both parents. But, should one parent make their objection known, then the care must cease. In one extreme case, a child with a mouthful of cavities kept being turned away by the dentist because one parent wouldn't provide the necessary permission. The other parent finally had to get a court order to let the dentist proceed!

What Do You Mean There Isn't Health Insurance for My Kids?

Lastly, some family law practitioners don't go to the trouble of securing a QMCSJO (Qualified Medical Child Support Judgment Order), which is Missouri's way of making sure the child's health insurance is always kept in force. Where reasonably available and affordable by the parent, such as from an employer or labor union, the QMCSJO is issued by the court and joined by the insurance plan, prohibiting the parent from dropping the child's coverage.

For over 25 years Cynthia M. Fox has focused her practice in family law, with a particular emphasis on matters relating to the dissolution of marriage: divorce representation and mediation, child custody and child support. She is a native St. Louis and a graduate of the Washington University School of Law, Class of '73.

Cynthia M. Fox can be contacted by phone at (314)727-4880 or
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