Effective January 2020, the Maryland court created new rules that parties seeking to establish or modify custody of a child must jointly complete and file a form called the Maryland Parent Planning Tool. This form and instructions on how to complete it are given to the parties at the first hearing in a family law matter such as a divorce. The deadline to file a Planning Tool with the court is on either a date set by the court; 10 days before a scheduled settlement conference (if there is one); or 20 days before the trial date. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, they are required to complete and file a Joint Statement of the Parties Concerning Decision Making Authority and Parenting Time that clarifies all points of agreement and dispute that the parties were able to reach.
By requiring the parties to cooperate on a plan, the Maryland Courts have several goals:
Parenting plans are a guide for how parties will handle child-related issues. With a parenting plan, parties – not the court – decide what is best for their family after considering the child’s unique needs. While parenting plans are child-focused, they also foster collaborative co-parenting, ensure the child’s continued relationships with each party, and give each party a chance to come up with solutions to problems. The goal is to provide predictability and structure for how the family will function when parties do not live together.
For the court, parenting plans provide insight to the family dynamic and help make child custody orders and modifications uniform and equitable.
The Planning Tool addresses dozens of issues about the children. It guides the parties through these issues, designating authority for decision making, and allocating rights and responsibilities in areas such as education, health, and vacations. It specifically addresses dispute resolution questions, including the possibility of agreeing to mediation before taking a dispute back to the court.
While thorough, the document concludes with the advice that each of the parties has the right to review the document with an attorney before signing it. An attorney with experience in custodial matters can help a party consider their unique circumstances and propose additional or alternate terms to make sure that their rights are preserved.
Counsel can address issues like appropriate boundaries, the co-parenting process, the pros and cons of a specific proposal, and important ways to make sure that the ultimate parenting plan is followed.
When the parties cannot agree, the Parenting Tool helps each party and their attorney to focus on specific disputes and develop the factual predicate for a specific proposal. In a reaching a conclusion to the custody questions – through mediation, settlement conference or trial – the Parenting Tool shapes a critical process to make sure that the right matters are addressed.
Due to COVID-19 closures, the Circuit Courts in Maryland have fallen behind on hearings, which means that not all family law matters require the parties to prepare and submit the Parenting Tool or the Joint Statement. For divorces in Rockville, the Montgomery County Circuit Court Family Department oversees these matters, and it is holding a mix of online hearings and hearings in court subject to masking and other safety precautions. If you are unsure whether your case requires this tool, you should confer with counsel. Given the possibility of a deadline to file prior to a hearing, check with counsel as soon as possible.
If you are presently considering or involved in a case in which child custody is an issue, contact the experienced family law attorneys at Barkley & Kennedy, for a consultation.
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