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Are There Exceptions to Following Parenting Plans?

A recent internet controversy has brought the flexibility of parenting plans to the forefront of many child custody conversations. The question is simple: how much flexibility are co-parents expected to grant each other?

The debate began when an anonymous father posted a query on the internet forum Reddit regarding his ex-spouse’s request to temporarily alter their parenting plan. According to his post, the couple shares equal custody of their 9-year-old son, but the parenting plan states the father keeps the child through winter break to grant the mother more time during the summer. When the son needed surgery, both parents agreed to schedule it just before winter break, so he would have as much time to recover as possible. 

The father prepared for the procedure assuming his son would recover in his home after the surgery. However, the day before it was scheduled, the mother requested that their son go home with her instead. The father denied it. She then requested further visitation during the three-week break, which he also rejected. The father’s question was simple: was he in the wrong?

His post garnered nearly 10,000 responses, and reactions were mixed. However, the legal answer is clear: he had the right to do exactly what he did. He followed the parenting plan exactly. His situation raises a more important question, though. Once a pair of co-parents have a plan in place, how much flexibility should they expect before considering a new custody order?

California Parenting Plan Laws and Regulations

In California, parenting time orders and custody orders are related but not the same. A custody order outlines what rights each parent has toward the child. It explains whether one or both parents have:

  • Legal custody: The right to make important decisions for the child.
  • Physical custody: The right to have the child live with them.

If physical custody is awarded to both parents, it is necessary to determine when the child will live with each person. This is where parenting time orders come into play. 

Parents may request a “reasonable” parenting time order if they get along well. These orders allow the parents to work out where the child spends time without legal intervention. However, these open-ended orders can make scheduling difficult and lead to conflict if parents are not careful to communicate. 

The most common alternative is to add a schedule or parenting plan to the order. These plans provide a schedule for the dates and times kids spend with each parent. They minimize the opportunity for conflict by reducing the chance of miscommunication. However, they also limit the flexibility each parent can reasonably request from the other.

Exceptions to Parenting Plans and Child Custody Orders 

When a custody order and parenting plan schedule are in place, both parents are expected to follow them. The anonymous father was within his rights to deny his co-parent her last-minute request for an additional three weeks of custody or extra visits. However, there are exceptions and situations where you may deviate from the plan, such as:

  • An Agreement With Your Co-Parent: If you both agree to change your visitation schedule, temporarily or permanently, you can follow the new program. Get your co-parent’s agreement in writing to make sure you have proof they agreed to the change, though.  
  • A Temporary Health or Safety Risk: If your child is seriously ill or there is an extreme weather event happening, you are not obligated to perform custody exchanges that will put them at risk. However, their other parent may be able to file a complaint against you, so make sure your decision is justified.
  • A Danger to the Child: If you believe your child will be at immediate risk of harm if they spend time in their other parent’s household, you may be able to withhold custody entirely. However, this is a much more significant deviation, so you must notify the courts immediately. 

Understanding Your Rights and Obligations Under California Custody Orders 

If you have a custody order and parenting plan in place, it’s vital to understand your rights and obligations. The best way to do so is to consult an experienced family lawyer about your specific order. In general, you likely face the following expectations and responsibilities.

You may: 

  • Request a temporary or permanent change to the parenting plan. Requests are permitted, but your co-parent does not have to grant them. You may also petition the court for changes if it has been at least three years since it was first issued or if there have been material changes to your circumstances.
  • Grant your co-parent’s request for these changes. If your co-parent requests a change, you have the right to grant it.

You may not:

  • Violate a parenting schedule without excellent reason. Simply wanting to spend more time with your child is not enough to disregard a parenting order.
  • Retaliate against your co-parent. You cannot withhold custody from your co-parent because they violated the plan first. If necessary, file a petition for injunctive relief with the family court.

You must:

  • Notify your co-parent if you cannot follow the plan’s schedule as soon as possible. If your child is ill, the weather is bad, or another emergency prevents you from adhering to your parenting plan, let the other parent know so they can adjust their plans. 
  • Request a new custody order if your old parenting plan can no longer be followed. If you have moved, changed jobs, or otherwise changed your circumstances so that the old plan can’t be reasonably followed, you must notify the court and develop a new schedule that accounts for these changes.

Consult Kaspar & Lugay LLP on Family Law Concerns

At Kaspar & Lugay LLP, we understand your concerns regarding child custody and parenting plans. If you have questions about your rights under a parenting schedule, the flexibility you should expect, or how to pursue a new custody order, we are available to help. Schedule your consultation today to discuss your concerns and learn more about your rights and options under California child custody regulations.