Making parenting arrangements for our children after separation can be challenging. We have to consider the various options available and adjust to what the ‘new normal’ could look and feel like. There is often a transition period after separation, as a variety of matters are resolved before both parents are set up in their own homes, and the co-parenting juggle between two homes begins.
Many practical issues need to be considered and discussed between parents before they can finalise parenting arrangements in relation to the care of their children. After the details have been negotiated and agreed, it is good to document your parenting arrangements in a parenting plan, so there is no ambiguity.
You and your ex are the parents and it is up to you agree what arrangements are best for your children. There is no standard set of rules that you need to follow, but there are matters that should be considered. You and your ex determine the level of detail that you think is appropriate to document, this is often governed by how amicable or strained your relationship is at that point in time. It is better to have more detail initially to set you both up for success, and this then normally relaxes over time as you both settle into your new relationship as co-parents, adjusting around all the unexpected life events that occur despite the best planning.
UNDERSTANDING PARENTING AGREEMENTS, PLANS AND ORDERS
WHAT IS A PARENTING AGREEMENT?
A parenting agreement is an agreement between the parents about the care of their children. The parents can determine how best to document this agreement and the level of detail they believe to be appropriate for them.
A parenting agreement can be:
- An oral agreement,
- A written parenting plan, or
- An agreement that is put into a formal court order, called parenting orders.
While an oral agreement is legally acceptable, a written agreement is usually best practice and is what is recommended by the Family Court, as both parties then have clarity about what is required and expected from each of them, and this normally reduces future conflict. Most couples therefore choose either a parenting plan or parenting orders.
WHAT IS A PARENTING PLAN?
A parenting plan is a written agreement between the parents about the care of the children, which is signed and dated. A parenting plan focuses on the needs and best interests of the children.
The plan is worked out and agreed between you and your ex-partner jointly, often with assistance from a community based service providing family support. There is no required format for this plan, but some family support services have examples of parenting plans that may help parents.
A parenting plan can be created quickly and cost effectively, and similarly easily amended along the way. This is the simplest and most stress-free way of documenting your parenting agreement.
However, a parenting plan is not a legally enforceable agreement and so acts more as a guide. It is different from a parenting order, which is made by a court. To change a parenting plan into a legally enforceable agreement, parents can apply to the court for a parenting consent order which is based on the agreed parenting plan.
WHAT IS A PARENTING ORDER?
A parenting order is a set of orders made by a court about parenting arrangements for the children.
Parents can agree their own Parenting Orders (parenting plan) and then submit them to the court for approval. Once approved by the Court, they are binding. Alternatively, a court can make a parenting order after a court hearing or trial.
Once a parenting order is approved by the Court, each person affected by the order must follow it.
ABOUT PARENTING PLANS AND PARENTING ORDERS
Parenting plan or parenting order
Whether you choose a parenting plan or a parenting order, will often depend on the relationship you have with your ex. If you and your ex are amicable and you have confidence that your ex will comply with what you have both agreed, you will most likely be comfortable starting with a parenting plan. If you do not have this level of comfort, you might prefer to go straight to a parenting order, knowing both parties are then legally bound to comply with the parenting order.
Most couples start with an oral agreement or a parenting plan, and then when they apply to the family court for property orders by consent they seek parenting orders at the same time, as there is no additional cost involved to add in parenting orders that have already been agreed, when applying for property orders. This approach enables documents to be submitted to the court for approval, but as both parents agree to the property and parenting orders sought, neither need to go to court and hence this is the lowest cost option for obtaining legally binding orders.
Ideally you would start discussions with your ex in relation to agreeing a parenting plan and if you are both able to agree you would feel comfortable trialling the parenting plan approach. If these discussions were not able to advance forward, mediation would be the next step to seek assistance and guidance to agree on the care arrangements for your children.
WHAT TO INCLUDE IN PARENTING PLAN / PARENTING ORDER
When making a parenting agreement, parents should consider a wide range of matters, including:
- Who the child will live with;
- The allocation of parental responsibility;
- Which parenting decisions will be joint decisions;
- Who is best placed to provide day to day care;
- How much time the child will spend with each parent and with other people, such as grandparents;
- School holidays, birthdays, christmas and other special occasions;
- Practical considerations – how far away parents live from each other and how this can affect your arrangements (eg work commitments, accommodation, transport costs, travel time);
- Education – current and future schools;
- Children’s sporting and social commitments;
- Transport arrangements for children (eg pick-ups and drop-offs)
- How the child will communicate with a parent they do not live with, or other people;
- Medical issues, treatment and health insurance;
- Cultural needs;
- Overseas holidays with one parent;
- Consent for passport and holder of passports;
- How costs to be shared – day to day, educational, medical, dental, unexpected;
- Any other aspect of the care, welfare or development of the child;
- How will disagreements be managed;
- How often will plan be reviewed (as children grow their needs change and parenting plans need to be updated).
WHAT NOT TO INCLUDE IN A PARENTING PLAN OR PARENTING ORDER
Property orders (financial settlement), parenting orders and child support are all separate legal matters.
Parenting plans are able to include as much information as parents choose as a parenting plan is an agreement between the parents, with no set format, and it not submitted to the court. Parents often agree to include both parenting matters and child support matters in the parenting agreement, and that is fine if they are both happy with this approach.
Parenting orders are submitted to the court and hence they are only to deal with parenting matters, not child support matters.