Maryland Rule 9-204.1 became effective Jan. 1, 2020.
Under the rule, parties to a family law action in circuit court are required to work together to create a joint Parenting Plan which they believe is in the child’s best interests.
“Parenting Plan means a written agreement about how parties will work together to take care of a child.” Md. Rule 9-204.1 (a)(2).
The rule requires that “At the parties’ first appearance in court on a decision-making authority or parenting time matter, the court shall provide to each party a paper copy of the Maryland Parenting Plan Instructions and Maryland Parenting Plan Tool and direct them to an electronic version of these documents.”
The court shall advise the parties that “they may work separately, together, or with a mediator to develop a Parenting Plan they believe is in the best interest of their child.” Md. Rule 9-204.1(b).
Although full compliance with Rule 9-204.1 has yet to be achieved, a Parenting Plan is a useful tool not only for the court, but also for attorneys and pro se litigants, and compliance should be pursued.
In developing a Parenting Plan, the parties must think about what they actually want the court to order.
Parenting Plans can be especially useful for pro se litigants at a mediation or in court, to assist them in translating their requests into terms that can be incorporated into a court order.
The Maryland Parenting Plan Instructions and the Maryland Parenting Plan Tool (form CC-DR-109) are materials provided at the very first court appearance to encourage parties to begin contemplating at the outset how they propose co-parenting.
The vocabulary of Parenting Plans excludes antiquated terms that reflect an implied possession of the child.
The Parenting Plan Tool asks parties to think beyond the obsolete terms of “physical custody” and “legal custody,” instead asking parties to propose schedules (or “parenting time”) and decision-making and information-sharing protocols.
The instructions ask parents to reflect on the factors enumerated in Taylor and Sanders, using those factors to formulate what the logistics of co-parenting.
Beyond decision-making authority and parenting time, Parenting Plans elicit responses regarding the logistics of co-parenting, such as, transporting and exchanging the children, and handling childcare.
Generally, Parenting Plans that include more specifics and address the decision-making process when there is conflict are likely to be more effective.
Although a Parenting Plan can seem like just another required filing, when utilized Parenting Plans are effective tools for both client advocacy and resolution.
Reviewing Parenting Plans with clients at the start of litigation not only introduces clients to the best-interest factors and logistics of co-parenting, but also informs attorneys so they can manage client expectations and craft their advocacy around realistic client goals.
In addition, on the day of trial, the court may direct parties, who have not complied with the requirement to complete a Parenting Plan, delaying the start of trial.
If parties are unable to come to a full Parenting Agreement, Rule 9-204.2 directs parties to complete a Joint Statement of the Parties Concerning Decision-Making Authority and Parenting Time (CC-DR-110), which lists points of agreement and points of dispute, similar to the format of Joint Marital Property Statements under Rule 9-207.
In high-conflict cases or those where there are allegations of abuse, a Joint Statement becomes unrealistic.
However, a party may always complete the Joint Statement to reflect only their position, or submit a completed Parenting Plan Tool.
Even when Parenting Plans do not result in a full resolution, they prove useful at trial.
Parties who have already completed Parenting Plans can simply refer to detailed schedules contained within those plans, instead of testifying to their proposals while the court takes notes of the schedule hoping to get all the details.
Representations in a Parenting Plan may be considered “judicial admissions” and considered as evidence under the holding of Beck v. Beck, 112 Md. App. 197 (1996).
Thus, through Parenting Plans, parties are essentially generating settlement negotiations that are admissible at trial.
When parties file Parenting Plans, the court can identify the points of agreement and dispute between the parties.
Parenting Plans may be underutilized, but they remain required and can be valuable tools; their potential is worth pursuing and can reduce the stress of the court process.
Alice V. Mutter is a senior staff attorney for family law at Maryland Legal Aid.