By Stephanie Dew – Solicitor and Head of Family Law at MG Solicitors
When parents separate it is crucial to consider the children involved and what arrangements are required to ensure that they are able to spend consistent time with each parent and to minimise disruption to their routines. The best way for this to be achieved is for the parents to agree a Parenting Plan. It is you, the parents who know what is best for your children and should make arrangements for them, Courts are a place of last resort.
I appreciate that the end of a relationship is traumatic, the separation process is hard and emotional and it takes time for those initial raw emotions to heal. However, when there are children involved, it is simply not possible for you to entirely sever your ties with your ex-partner and move on with your life. Your lives will be forever interlinked, particularly during those child raising years and it is crucial that you swiftly find a way to effectively co-parent in order support your children grow and thrive. Even as your children gets older they will still need the presence of both parents in their lives and you will hopefully have the opportunity to enjoy graduations, weddings and grandchildren alongside your ex-partner one day.
What is a parenting plan?
A Parenting Plan is a written agreement worked out between parents after they separate and it covers the practical issues of co-parenting, providing a framework for discussions and an opportunity to detail the arrangements which suit your own individual children’s needs.
Is a Parenting Plan legally binding?
A Parenting Plan is not legally binding, it is however possible to make it into a legal document by asking a solicitor to formalise it into a “consent order”.
Whilst a Parenting Plan does not carry the same status as an Order relating to the children, in the event that at a later stage an application was made to the Court, the Parenting Plan will be considered a significant document.
How do I make a Parenting Plan?
How you agree a parenting plan with your ex-partner will depend on your individual circumstances. If you are able to meet face to face to sit down together and chat through the practical arrangements that is great, however that is simply not possible for everyone. I appreciate that some people find the thought of meeting up on their own with their ex-partner a daunting or intimidating process. Particularly during the early days of the separation process. Mediation is a really useful way to make progress with the arrangements for the children and you should explore this option. A mediator is an independent person who will facilitate a conversation between you and your ex-partner with a view to helping you reach an agreement.
Creating a Parenting Plan is not about you and your ex-partner, it is about your children and putting their best interests first. It is about zooming in on the children during the maelstrom of your separation to find a way forward for them.
What should I put in the Parenting Plan?
Ultimately it is up to you and your ex-partner as to what you feel is appropriate and necessary in order for you to effectively co-parent. Each family is different and you as parents know your children best. The CAFCASS parenting plan website is a useful source of information and provides a template.
You should give consideration to the following:
- Living and Childcare Arrangements
This is normally the main issue to be considered upon separation and is often the trickiest to resolve. You need to agree whether there will be a main place that the children live and how much time they will spend with each parent. Agreement is also needed as to how you should share time with the children during the school holidays and for special occasions. You may also wish to give some thought about the practical arrangements of pickups and drop-offs and how the children’s clothes and belongings will be exchanged. Your arrangements need to take into account the children’s usual activities and social lives. Check that the arrangements enable the children to continue to see their extended family as maintaining those relationships is important and they can be a source of continuity and comfort to the children during the disruption of their parents’ separation. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family to help with the arrangements, a grandparent doing a pickup or drop-off for an initial period on behalf of a parent may avoid the potential for parental conflict when emotions are running high during those early days.
- Money and the Children
Once you have ascertained where the children are going to be spending their time on a day to day basis you need to consider how you will both support the children financially. How can you share day to day costs for clothes, school trips, music lessons etc. You may also wish to make provision for your child’s needs in the longer term to fund their university education. Remember that your financial positions are not static and that the arrangements will need to be reviewed periodically. If you are going through a divorce and there are issues resolving the family finances this can be a particularly difficult issue to address whilst those matters remain unresolved. I suggest that if your future financial position is unclear you focus on making short-term arrangements at this stage. If you are finding it hard to reach an agreement about what financial support is appropriate you may wish to use the Child Support Agency calculator.
- Your Children’s Education
You need to let the children’s school know about your change in circumstances so that they are able to liaise with you both going forward and so they can provide your children with support if they need it at this time. You should also consider whether putting in place some counselling or family therapy for your children would help them adjust to their new family arrangement. You need to consider how you will both continue to engage and support your child at school by attending parent’s evenings, school show and sporting events etc. If you have to make choices about your children’s future education are you able agree what is most important and how you can reach a decision as to what is best for your children.
How will you and your ex-partner communicate going forward? During the early stages of separation, communication can be difficult therefore some people find it helpful to keep it minimal in order avoid the possibility of any conflict creeping in. Email is useful, it has a more formal aspect to it as opposed to a quickly fired off text or What’s App message. Handover books can also assist, you can buy a blank notebook to fill in as you go or you can purchase more formal ones which include templates for the information that should be included. There are also a large number of apps available which aim to ease the communication process. You need to decide what information you should be sharing with each other and how that should be passed between you. You also need a clear agreement as how you can contact each other in an emergency.
- Other issues
Each family is unique, only you know what is important to you and your children. Whilst the time the children spend with each parent will or course differ, there will be some rules and boundaries that you agree need to be consistent in both households such as bedtimes, homework done, screen time.
There may be health issues that need to be discussed in the Parenting Plan or cultural or religious aspects that should be included.
You may wish to at an early stage include provision for what should happen if one of you meets a new partner and the expectation of the children being reduced. Potential new partners may be easier to discuss as an early stage when it is just a hypothetical issue rather than when it is a reality and has become a more emotive topic.
Reviewing the Parenting Plan regularly is crucial. Your children and their needs will change with time and therefore timetabling regular reviews can be helpful. I am not suggesting significantly changing the arrangements every few months, rather that you should be reviewing what is in place, what is working well and what could improve. This could also give you an opportunity to discuss big decisions in relation to the children, such as schooling and careers advice. You may find diarising a face to face meet up every 6 months helpful or alternatively to schedule reviews with your mediator.
My experience is that whilst it may seem like a momentous task to agree a Parenting Plan during that early period of separation, by reaching an early agreement about the practicalities for the child arrangements you are more likely to reduce the possibility of conflict and problems arising later.
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