When parents separate, there are many aspects of the child arrangements that need to be considered.
A parenting plan is an “action plan” for parents – an opportunity to set out their intentions towards each other and their children to prevent or reduce conflict in the future.
Where parents can’t agree, they may wish to consider family mediation to help them resolve their issues. It can often be much more effective than trying to tackle problems alone.
But what should a parenting plan include?
- Where the child will live and/or spend time with each parent.
Parents should think about the week to week arrangement for their child, but also consider school holidays, Christmas / other religious festivals and special occasions.
Many parents will have one arrangement in place for school term time and another for holidays. Others have the same arrangement throughout the year – for example, if this is a shared care arrangement.
Thought should be given to the child spending time with each parent both during the school week and at weekends. Consider also the amount of travelling the child will have to do – are longer blocks of time more practical than frequent changes from one home to another.
Parents may feel comfortable collecting and dropping off their child to/from each other’s homes. Others may prefer to utilise the school / nursery as a handover point.
There may be other options such as a halfway point between the two homes, the home of a family member or the venue of a child’s extra-curricular activity.
Consideration should also be given to how a handover is managed – if there is to be some communication between parents at handover, what should and shouldn’t be discussed? Can parents manage the handover themselves or should a third party be involved? How will the child feel about this?
- Travel arrangements
Some parents will continue to live in close proximity to each other and travel may be less of a concern for them. Even so, some thought will need to be given to who will be responsible for each drop off and collection.
Where parents live further away, the cost and time involved with transporting the child may be more of an issue. Consideration should be given to the practicalities of the arrangements taking into account each parent’s working/family/other commitments.
- Indirect arrangements
Parents should consider other forms of contact that a child may want to have with each of them. This can include telephone calls, video calls, exchanging texts or social media messages etc. It can also include the sending of cards and presents.
- Child care during school holidays
This can be a significant issue for many parents (whether separated or not) as the cost of formal childcare is expensive and the summer holiday in particular is so long.
The best arrangements are where the parents collaborate to help one another to find a solution that is affordable and meets the child’s needs. Can family members on either side of the family assist? If formal childcare is required, who will be responsible for paying for this / will the cost be shared in some way?
It may be that one parent has more flexibility in their work than the other and can do more of the childcare during holidays.
- Taking the child away on holiday
Most parents, if able to do so, would like to be able to spend some extended time with their child for a holiday – either within or outside of the UK.
If a holiday is not affordable, then an extended period during school holidays to spend time with the child at home or going for days out can also be desirable.
Thought should be given to how long each parent can spend with the child in one period and how often this could occur. If it involves taking the child away, what details ought to be communicated to the other parent? If the child’s passport is needed, how and when will this be provided? If the other parent’s written consent is needed for a holiday, how will this be given?
Parents may also want to consider whether the child should have video / telephone call contact with the other parent when they are away on holiday? If so, how often? Are there measures in place in the event of an emergency?
- Special Occasions
There are certain days in the year that a lot of parents will agree are “special” and so understandably they would like to share those days with their child. This can include the child’s birthday, the parents’ birthdays, Christmas Day / other religious festival days, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Parents may want to consider whether these days are shared and if so, how this can be achieved? Is it desirable to split the day or do parents take it in turns to have the full day each year?
Some special occasions may fall on a day when the child is in school. How would this be handled differently to a non-school day?
There may be other options that do not fall in either of these categories.
- Extended families
When parents separate it isn’t just the immediate family that is impacted, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. There may also be step / half siblings to consider amongst others.
Consideration should be given to how these relationships can be maintained for the child (assuming this is appropriate).
- Flexibility in the arrangements
The most effective arrangements for children tend to build in an element of flexibility so that the arrangements can be adapted (by agreement) where needed.
For example, if there is a family wedding that falls on the other parent’s weekend, or if one parent wishes to go away on holiday and cannot have the child that week.
Flexibility also enables the child to fully take part in events and occasions on both sides of their family without missing out if it falls during the other parent’s time.
Generally speaking, the more notice parents can give to each other of a proposed change, the easier it is for that change to be agreed and for alternative arrangements to be put into place. Parents can think about how notice should be given – it is better to communicate any change to the arrangements as a request and not a demand.
- Review of the arrangements
As a child grows, their needs and circumstances may change. For example, arrangements that worked well when the child was pre-school age may not work so well once they are attending school five days per week.
New extra-curricular activities may need to be considered; a parent’s working hours may change or a there may be a change in address that may make the current arrangements unworkable.
Child arrangements are not set in stone. Parents may want to think about having a regular review of the arrangements (possibly every year or two) to check they are still working well; or if a regular review is not desirable then they can discuss and agree on how they will raise any potential change with the other parent and how they will react if the other parent approaches them for a review.
- Maintenance and child related expenses
Child maintenance can be a highly sensitive issue, particularly when times are hard and there is a financial strain on both parents.
Parents may want to consider whether maintenance should be paid and if so, how much is reasonable. They may also want to consider how they will tackle changes in their circumstances that may require a review of maintenance. Ultimately if they cannot reach an agreement, the Child Maintenance Service can make this decision, but it is better if parents can collaborate with each other to find an arrangement that works for them.
It may be that there are certain child-related expenses that are not covered by child maintenance and parents may want to have a separate agreement relating to those expenses. For example, school uniform, payment for extra-curricular activites, child care costs etc.
This is probably the one issue that crops up in almost all my family mediation matters. Poor communication leads to conflict which then can lead to a disruption or breakdown in the child arrangements. Poor communication can have an enormous impact on parents’ mental health and it can be damaging for the child.
Parents should consider what they need to communicate with each other about and whether there is anything they would rather not be told. What is the best form of communication? Should it be in writing, verbal or a mixture of the two? Do parents have each other’s contact details?
If this is not appropriate or workable, is there a third party who can assist? Parents who struggle with direct communication may also want to consider using an app for this purpose such as “Our Family Wizard”.
Parents may also want to think about the frequency and timing of communication – how much is too much or too little? Is a text after 10pm too late? Communication should be civil at all times. There may need to be a separate arrangement for emergency situations where time is of the essence.
- Parental responsibility
There will be various issues that crop up where parents need to exercise their parental responsibility and make decisions on behalf of their child. This could be choice of school / nursery; a health issue; whether a child gets their ears pierced or has their own smart phone etc.
Parents may want to think about the issues they feel are important to them and would like to be consulted on.
- Introduction of new partner
Parents should think about how they would handle the introduction of a new partner to their child. Consideration could be given to when this occurs, how it occurs and whether the other parent wishes to meet the partner prior to an introduction taking place.
- Other Issues
There may be other issues that are relevant to your particular set of circumstances that are not covered in this article. Every family will have its own unique situation and it is impossible to cover everything that might crop up. If something arises that was not anticipated by either parent, then the best way forward is to agree in principle how it will be tackled – for example, if an agreement cannot be reached then there could be an agreement to attend family mediation prior to taking the matter to court.
24 October, 2023
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