Drafting Divorce Settlement Agreements with Teenagers in Mind

It Happens Fast
When you are negotiating the custody & visitation portion of your Divorce Settlement Agreement, you will need to keep teenagers in mind, even if your children are still very young.  As any parent of a teenager will tell you, your kids will become young adults before you know it.  They grow up fast.  Thus, even if you only have little ones, try and leave some flexibility in your Divorce Settlement Agreement to allow you settlement terms to grow along with your family’s growth and changing needs.

Consider a Scheduled Formal Review and Reconsideration of Your Parenting Arrangements (Custody & Visitation Plan) Within Your Settlement Agreement

Some divorcing parents choose to set aside certain dates for a formal review and reconsideration of their parenting arrangements (custody & visitation).  Those mandatory reviews don’t usually occur more than once or twice during the period of the child’s minority, otherwise they tend to feel intrusive. Also, mandatory reviews tend to be set around the same time as other significant child-related events (e.g. matriculation to middle and high school, upon receipt of driver’s license, etc.).

When Is It Time to Renegotiate the Parenting Arrangements?

Older kids are figuring out who they are, often becoming deeply involved in school-related activities and events and, their social network takes on a life of itself.  You, the parent, pretty much “get the bump” as your kids get older.  Then, just when many kids start becoming their friendly selves again, in the second half of the teenage years, they start driving.  Teen driving, with divorced parents, adds a whole other dimension to custody & visitation.  Some parents might wonder if a custody and visitation order, that was written when the child was in elementary school or younger, is in need of tweaking as the children get older. The answer is probably yes.

With teenagers, it is a fine and artful line that needs to be drawn between ensuring time spent with each parent and allowing your teen to operate semi-independently.

Some examples of situations deserving review and reconsideration of a divorced couple’s custody & visitation plan (parenting arrangement) follow:

Scenario A: The Early Teen Years: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!

During this stage, children need less supervision and they are more independent.  This fact often leads divorced parents to changes to their custody & visitation plan that had not worked when the children were littler.  However, as your child reaches the age of 13, there are a lot of physiological changes going on, in addition to the myriad of adjustments necessary for middle school.  Thus, even though parenting arrangements may appear more flexible as the children get older, a change in custodial care arrangements at this time may not be a good idea considering how much change is already taking place in your child’s life.  In other words, at this stage, it is sometimes best to leave well enough alone.

Scenario B: Start of High School: Give Them a Say

As your teen is getting older and starting high school, he or she will start to have a lot of ideas about what works best in terms of spending time at each of his or her parents’ homes.  Older kids may not want to switch houses so often, and might not really care about spending time with their parents.  Their priorities are often their friends, school, sports, and other teen-centered activities. When working on parenting arrangements for older kids, keep in mind that teenagers usually do best when they feel that their parents are listening to them.  You don’t have to do what they say, but everyone wants to feel that they are being heard.

Watch Out for Guilty Feelings

Finally, parents who choose to involve their teenager in discussions and decisions regarding custody & visitation may wish to keep an eye out for a teen expressing preferences based on feelings of guilt.  Though empathetic feelings are usually encouraged by parents, custody & visitation plans are not intended to be based on teen guilt over not spending enough time with one or both of his or her parents.  Being respectful of the family, however, is in order whether or not there has been a divorce.  That may mean that a teen needs to respect reasonale custodial care schedules without a big fuss.  Just make sure that the roles aren’t reversed and your child ends up feeling like he or she needs to stay by your side to take care of you (except under certain fairly unusual and temporary circumstances).

You Are Your Child’s Advocate, Role Model & Guide

A worthwhile mindset to consider, when negotiating teen parenting issues with your spouse or former spouse, is that you are an advocate for your child.  Luckily, most of us remember what it feels like to be a teenager, and that helps in our ability to step into our children’s shoes and be a good advocate.  Also, most parents know the importance of decision-making in the middle and high school years, and are protective of their children’s need for excellent guidance and assistance in constructing a solid foundation on which to build autonomy.

Parents tend to know that, in order to be a good role model and guide for their kids, they need to actually be with their kids, physically. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to have an influence over your children’s choices and be able to help them through the often confusing teen years.  Think about this when crafting a custodial care plan. Make sure to allow time to be with your teenagers, just as there needs to be time made for other important engagements in your child’s life (such as school, lacrosse practice, play practice, chorus rehearsal, tutoring, doctor’s appointments, orthodontist, etc.)  It’s a balancing act, but your children will be grateful you cared enough to carve out the time (and put up with the aggravation) to be with them . . . although, probably that gratefulness won’t appear until they have kids of their own!

If you believe that it is important that your child have a bonded relationship with both his or her mother and father, there will probably need to be some compromise between what the child wants, in terms of a custody & visitation arrangements, and what the parents feel is best.

Good luck and enjoy your teens.  They will be gone before you know it!

Posted by Kristina Duncan Hoeges, Freelance Paralegal


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