The Different Aspects of Parenting Arrangements

Little girl, laughing, being carried over the shoulder of her father

Determining parenting arrangements after a divorce or separation requires thorough planning and cooperation from co-parents. To be effective, parenting arrangements must be comprehensive and in order to achieve that, they must answer numerous questions about a child's upbringing. At first, determining what needs to be addressed in a parenting arrangement may feel overwhelming, especially if parents have never needed to create one in the past. However, once the different aspects of parenting arrangements are explained, parents can begin the process of formulating their own arrangements with confidence.

Basic Definitions

  • Parenting Plan: A parenting plan is a signed and dated written agreement made jointly by the parents of the child.  
  • Parenting Order: A parenting order is a court order that deals with one or more matters regarding parenting arrangements after a divorce or separation.
  • Consent Order: A consent order is a court order that parents can apply for when they are in agreement about their parenting plan and want to formalise it and make it binding.

Best Interests of Children

Every single solution and agreement reached in a parenting plan should be done so with the best interests of the child in mind. This is the paramount consideration not only for parents but also for courts when reviewing applications for consent orders or during the creation of parenting orders. If parents are unsure of whether the choices they are making are in the best interests of their children, it may be helpful to review the criteria by which courts determine the appropriateness of parenting arrangements.

According to the Family Law Act, the primary criteria for determining the best interest of the children are 1) whether children will benefit from meaningful relationships with both parents and 2) whether or not they need to be protected from physical or psychological harm stemming from being subjected or exposed to abuse, neglect, or family violence. Courts may consider additional criteria when determining the best interests of the child. These factors include, but are not limited to, the child's views, the nature of their relationship with each parent, past involvement of each parent in the child's upbringing, the possible effects on the child from a change in circumstances, and the capacity of each parent to meet the child's physical, emotional, and intellectual needs. 

Details of Parenting Plans and Parenting Orders

Parenting plans and parenting orders concern a multitude of issues. Before beginning the process of creating their arrangements, it's important for parents to understand the different aspects that parenting plans and parenting orders cover. 

Parental Responsibility

Parental responsibility concerns how major decisions are made about a child's upbringing. These decisions include, for example, matters of schooling, medical treatment, and religious education. When creating parenting orders, the court does so with a presumption that equal shared parental responsibility is in the best interests of the child. However, there are exceptions to this presumption in situations where abuse, violence, or neglect is a factor. Parental responsibility does not refer to whom the child lives or has contact with.

Unless modified by a court order, shared parental responsibility applies strictly to major long-term decisions about the child's upbringing. That means day-to-day decisions about what the child eats or wears, for example, do not fall under the umbrella of shared parental responsibility and do not need to be discussed between co-parents. Instead, it is up to the parent looking after the child to make non-major decisions about topics such as wardrobe and diet. 

If parental responsibility is shared by 2 or more persons, parenting plans should also address how conversations about major life-long decisions will be had. Parents may wish to not only designate a preferred method of communication but also denote the timeframe in which they must consult each other about decisions regarding the children. 

Whom the Child Lives with

One of the most important questions that must be answered by a parenting plan or parenting order is with whom will the child live. Although there is a presumption of equal shared parental responsibility when creating parenting orders, that does not mean that parenting time will or should be allocated equally between parents. However, if it is in the best interests of the child to spend equal time with both parents, then parents should review the many ways in which time between their households can be split 50/50. When determining a 50/50 schedule, parents should consider factors such as their respective work hours, extracurricular activity schedules, holidays, and more. 

There are many situations in which a 50/50 split in parenting time would not be ideal for either the parents or the children. This could be because of the age of the children, their developmental needs, or the distance between households. What might be an appropriate arrangement for a 12-year-old, for example, might be inappropriate for an infant or toddler. Additionally, if co-parents live a long distance from one another, a 50/50 split may simply be impossible to accommodate. 

Substantial and Significant Parenting Time

When equally shared parenting time is not the right fit, parenting plans should still aim to allocate substantial and significant time to each parent if practicable. If parents are unsure of whether their parenting arrangements allow for substantial and significant time with each parent, it may be helpful to review the criteria courts consider when making this determination. 

In order for parenting time to be considered significant and substantial, the court considers whether it includes both days that fall on weekends and holidays and those that do not. Substantial and significant parenting time should also allow the parent to participate in the child's daily routine. Finally, parenting time should allow parents and children to participate in events that hold special significance to the other, such as birthdays, graduations, and other special occasions. 

Communication and Spending Time with the Child

With shared parenting time, neither parent will be with their child 100% of the time. To address this, parenting plans should consider how parents will communicate with their children when they are apart. This should include determining the best methods of communication as well as timing. 

While parent-child relationships see the most change after a divorce or separation, relationships with extended family members are also potentially affected. Parenting plans should thus consider how time and communication with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members will be handled post-divorce. Parents may also want to provide additional directions for any other persons with whom their child spends time or communicates.

Disputes About and Updates to Parenting Arrangements

No relationship is 100% free of conflict. Especially when children are involved, it is of the utmost importance that parents have a system in place for resolving any conflict about their parenting plans quickly and privately. In order to be efficient and consistent in resolving disputes, parenting plans and parenting orders may include provisions detailing the method through which parents should mediate any conflict. To determine the best method for their situation, parents may wish to consult an FDR practitioner or another family law professional. 

Disputes about the terms or application of a parenting plan or parenting order may stem from the changing needs of a family. Arrangements that may have worked when a child was in primary school may no longer be appropriate as they mature. Additionally, a change in circumstances for either parent may necessitate a modification to a parenting plan or order. Whatever the reason for the needed change, parenting plans and orders may contain information about how parents should start the process of updating their arrangements. 

Raising children can be complicated, so it stands to reason that a comprehensive parenting plan will have many different facets. By keeping the best interests of their children in mind, parents can tackle this very important task with confidence. Because of the importance of this task, however, parents should consider consulting a neutral third-party for assistance in formulating their plan. FDR practitioners and collaborative law professionals can provide some much-needed support to parents struggling to come to an agreement.