Separation is difficult not only on the parents, but the children as well. Parents are often unsure or unable to communicate with each other about what time the children will spend with each parent. It is especially difficult when the separation is not amicable. Preparing interim parenting arrangements to guide you prior to a formal arrangement is really important.
The importance of interim parenting arrangements after separation
PREPARE A PARENTING PLAN
Normally the first step to work out interim parenting arrangements for children is through a parenting plan. This is a written agreement between the parents with or without legal advice. The parenting plan must be signed by both parents and should be dated.
The issue is if the parents have not received legal advice and did not understand what they were signing, or if one parent was coerced into to agreeing and signing due to family violence or a power imbalance between the parents.
A parenting plan is not legally binding and cannot be enforced by the Family or Federal Courts if one parent does not comply with the parenting plan. If either parent decided to make an Application to the Family Court or Federal Circuit Court then the parenting plan would be persuasive for the Court to make a decision based on the previous arrangements for the children.
USE A FAMILY DISPUTE RESOLUTION
One way to reach an agreement through a parenting plan is through family dispute resolution (FDR), otherwise known as mediation. This process allows the parents to reach an agreement and have their voices heard in a safe environment. If there are safety concerns then the family dispute resolution practitioner (FDRP) can arrange for the parents to be in separate rooms and the FDRP can go into between the rooms with the parents’ proposals. If an agreement is reached then a parenting plan can be entered into and preferably taken to their lawyers to obtain legal advice prior to signing.
There are plenty of government funded family dispute resolution services, such as Relationships Australia, Catholic Care, Lifeworks and private services such as Step by Step Support for Separated Families (and other similar services).
ARRANGEMENTS TO NEGOTIATE FOR YOUR CHILDREN
The FDRP can assist with the parents to negotiate interim parenting arrangements for the children, including spending scheduled times with each parent (week and weekend time), special occasions such as Christmas, birthdays and school holidays.
Another consideration is where changeover will occur. It is important to have time commencing and concluding to provide the children with stability and a regular routine.
Further, the issue of equal shared parental responsibility (ESPR) (making long term decisions for the children such as education, health and religion) or sole parental responsibility. Either EPSR or sole parental responsibility is not about spending time with the children, only about making long term decisions for the children.
GET LEGAL ADVICE FOR INTERIM PARENTING ARRANGEMENTS
It is always preferable that parents obtain legal advice prior to discussions with other parent to understand the Family Law Act and arrangements for the children.
I will often hear parents tell me that they want ‘week about time’ for the children with each parent. When I explain to the parent seeking legal advice that ‘week about time’ may not be in the children’s best interest. This may be due to family violence, lack of communication between the parents, distance between the two households, which may impact on the children attending school, then the parents may consider ‘substantial and significant time’ which can include week and weekend time as this arrangement would be in the children’s best interests.
WHAT IS AN INTERIM PARENTING ARRANGEMENT CAN’T BE REACHED?
If no interim parenting arrangement can be reached at FDR then the mediator can issue a Section 60I Certificate which looks very insignificant but is important if one parent decides to make an Application to the Family Court or Federal Circuit Court to seek parenting Orders.
Applications will be not be accepted by the Court without a Section 60I Certificate unless in circumstances of family violence, a child is at risk or urgency (such as a recovery Order when one parent unilaterally withholds a child). The Orders sought from the Court can include interim and final Orders. The interim Orders are those arrangements before final Orders are made by the Court or by Consent by the parents.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN AN AGREEMENT IS REACHED?
If parents reach an agreement by way of a parenting plan, this can be drafted into Consent Orders which are filed in the Family Court. Both parents must sign the Consent Orders and are not required to obtain independent legal advice, although it’s a good idea to do so.
The Consent Orders are Court Orders and must be complied with by both parents. There are consequences if one parent does not comply with the Orders.
PUTTING YOUR CHILDREN FIRST
If your children are young and the separation is difficult, it can be hard to consider how to be civil to the other parent for what they may have done to you during the marriage or relationship or how one parent has suddenly stepped up after separation and now going for parent of year award. Putting these differences aside and working on your own emotions can help your children for the future by having parents that can communicate effectively and are civil at changeovers.
Parenting after separation can be difficult. It is important to consider what is in the children’s best interests and ensure they have a meaningful relationship with both parents (unless there are issues of risk).
It can be hard to put your differences aside but through individual counselling (or couple counselling if appropriate) and not viewing your children as possessions, you can work together as co-parents of your children until they are 18 years old and beyond.
Remember, your children do not want to be in a position of not inviting one or both parents to their significant life events due your inability to get along whilst they were growing up.