Many states encourage parents to submit a parenting agreement to the court before beginning custody proceedings. In Massachusetts, this contract is all-but required for a joint custody decision.
According to state legal code, a court can award joint custody in only two cases. The parents can create a custody agreement together and file it with probate or family court, or they can present evidence showing their ability to cooperate during the time leading up to the proceedings.
Negotiating a parenting plan
Parents who can negotiate a plan generally exercise more agency over their custody outcome. In these cases, the two parties validate the agreement in the presence of a notary public and file it with probate or family court in a county where one of them resides. The agreement can take many forms, but it must at least include the addresses and social security numbers of both parents and the child. Living arrangements, holidays, disciplinary methods and strategies for deciding disagreements are important items to address. Some plans divide parental jurisdiction. For instance, one party claims the final decision on practicing religion, while the other decides conflicts over physical appearance.
Many parents find it useful to use a mediator, arbiter or attorney to help in negotiations. This third party can take an active or interventionist role depending on the parents’ ability to cooperate. In some cases, attorneys negotiate a contract draft without the couple present. Others find that simply having a mediator in the room enables them to arrive at a fair compromise.
Cooperating in parenting
Parents wanting to share custody who have not created a formal contract will need to show that they have cooperated peacefully in parenting since splitting up. The legal code describes this rather broadly as “the ability to communicate and plan with each other concerning the child’s best interests.” In such a case, the court decides the details of the joint custody agreement.
Even when parents create their own plan, the court reserves the right to investigate any evidence it finds appropriate and may alter the agreement as it sees fit. If the agreement is acceptable, the court will turn it into an official, legally enforceable ruling.