What is a parenting plan?
Whether you have just decided to separate or have been separated for some time, you and the other parent obviously need to think about and agree on arrangements about the children. Many children worry about what will happen to them when their parents split up, and it can be a big relief to them if the arrangements become clear and predictable.
Whatever you agree on about parenting arrangements doesn’t have to be written down, but if you do write it down, a parenting plan is a good way to do it. Agreements can be made in various ways, for example, face-to-face, by telephone or by email.
A Parenting Plan is an agreement that separated parents make about how their children will be cared for and supported. Preparing one yourselves means that you get to make your own decisions that suit your own circumstances. Agreeing about how things that affect your children are going to be organised, as straightforwardly as possible, will be good for your children and is likely to save arguments or misunderstandings along the way.
The best interests of your children are the most important thing for you to think about when you make an agreement.
A parenting plan can include anything that parents need to agree on about their children. The plan can be changed at any time with the agreement of both parents.
If you want your parenting agreement to be recognised by law as a Parenting Plan it must be developed in a particular way. It needs to be written down, dated and signed by both of you.
If you are both likely to be able to agree on most things...
Making a parenting plan will often mean sitting down together and writing down whatever you can both agree on about where your children will live, the arrangements for their day to day care, holidays, special occasions and so on. What can we put in a parenting plan?
If it's not likely that you will be able to agree on what will work best for your children
If you think it will be too hard for you or the other parent to keep the focus on your children, or that arguments could get too heated (and definitely if you feel unsafe) you can ask others to help you. Co-operating in making a workable parenting plan has good outcomes for children and you are strongly encouraged not to see this process as an opportunity to continue old arguments with the other parent.
What are the Advantages?
Because a parenting plan is worked out and agreed by both of you, agreeing in this way means you have control over the process and you won't need to fight things out in court. Going to court can be a tense, traumatic, expensive, long term experience and it can be hard to get off the roundabout. In some situations court involvement is absolutely necessary, but parents who have been through the system say to avoid it if you can.
Coming to a workable agreement without going to court saves parents a lot of money, time and distress and, more importantly, it is better for your children. Research clearly shows that it's not the separation of their parents that harms children the most; it's the ongoing arguments and negativity between the parents, and the anxiety that children feel when their parents can't co-operate about things that affect their daily lives.
When children know that their parents have talked about what's best for them, and know that a plan is written down, they are likely to feel cared for and safer. If your children can predict the shape of their lives and know that you will keep the adult issues between adults, they will be able to manage the stresses and fears of the separation much better.
What if it's not working or something changes?
A parenting plan can be cancelled or changed at any time by making a new written, dated and signed agreement between the people who signed the original plan.
Is it legal?
A parenting plan is not a legally enforceable agreement and is different from a parenting order, which is made by a court. However, parenting plans do have some legal implications.
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Do I have to make a parenting plan?
No you don't have to make a parenting plan. The Family Law Act strongly encourages parents to reach an agreement about their children. A parenting plan is one way of writing down that agreement.
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Who can help us make a plan?
Many separated parents are able to work out arrangements between themselves. Others find it better to get some help to reach agreement and/or to put the agreement into a parenting plan.
You may choose to go to family dispute resolution to help you to come to a workable agreement. Often these services will see each of the parents separately first, before both of you and the professional person sit down to work out parenting arrangements together. Or it may be that they can help you reach agreement without you having to be in the same room with the other parent if that's what you need.
Professionals who work as accredited family dispute resolution practitioners can help you discuss possible arrangements for your children and can help you reach an agreement with the other parent.
If you have fears for your own or your children's safety you should definitely consider getting help.
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What if I think my children or I are unsafe?
If you have concerns for your own safety or the children’s safety, you will still need to make some arrangements about the care of the children but...
- The law says that you do not have to try to reach agreement with the other parent before you go to court.
- If you don't want to go to court, there may still be other safe ways to make arrangements about the children and to deal with your disputes.
- There are services which can help you in ways that mean you don't have to sit down in the same room with the other parent in order to come to an agreement about important issues.
- If you do go to court you need to tell the court when you contact them (and any other service you get information and support from) that you have concerns about safety.
There may be some safe ways in which your children can still keep up a relationship with the other parent.
They can still spend time with the other parent under supervision; eg with another relative or at a children's contact service. Children's contact services are places where your children can spend supervised time with their other parent or where your children can be dropped off and picked up before and after seeing the other parent.
If you are worried about your own safety, you can also use a children's contact service to drop off and pick up your children and you don't have to see the other parent at all.
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What can we put in a parenting plan?
Your parenting plan can deal with anything relevant to the care, wellbeing and development of your children. The agreements you make should focus on the best options for your children rather than just what the adults do or don't want to happen.
A parenting plan works best for families when it is practical, simple and as concrete as possible.
All children's needs are different. If you have more than one child you may want to make different arrangements for each of the children. You could make a plan that includes these differences, or you could make a separate parenting plan for each child.
The kinds of issues that you are likely to need to cover in a parenting plan include:
- who your children will live with
- what time your children will spend with each parent
- what time your children will spend with other people, such as grandparents , siblings, step-parents or other people that are important to your children
- what activities each of you will do with your children (eg sports, homework, music)and whether both of you can agree to attend some important events with your children
- how you will share parental responsibility and decision making about the big things (eg what school your children will go to, decisions about healthcare )
- how you will talk about and come to agreement on the important, long-term issues as your children grow, their needs change or either of the parent's circumstances change.
- how your children will keep in touch with the other parent and other people important to your children when they are with you
- what arrangements need to be made for special occasions such as birthdays, religious or cultural events, holidays, graduation days
- financial arrangements for the children. This may include making contact with the Child Support Agency or Centrelink
- an agreed process that can be followed to change the plan or resolve any problems, if your children or either of the parents are not happy with the plan at a later date
Note: You can include agreements about property or finances in your parenting plan, but these aspects will not have the legal recognition that the agreements about parenting arrangements have. The area of division of property and financial settlement can be legally complex. You may need to seek legal advice about these matters.
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Thinking about the impact of our proposed plan on our children
Sometimes ideas and plans can impact on children in ways that parents didn't expect and don't want, so asking yourselves questions like these may help...
- Do we want to ask any older children for their opinions?
- (Most of the children who contact help-lines and online counselling about family breakdown, say they wish that their parents would talk with them and ask them about the arrangements that directly affect their lives)
- What might each arrangement be like for each child?
- What might be positive or work well for him/her?
- What might be particularly difficult for him/her?
- How could we help him/her manage these difficulties?
- How can we adjust the plan to better suit his/her needs?
- How will we respond if our children refuse to co-operate with any aspect of what we’ve decided?
- How will we talk about it and what can we agree to do if some aspect of our parenting plan is really not working for our children?
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What else might we think about when making a parenting plan?
Here are some other issues you may like to consider...
- We recognise that as our children grow older and their needs change, arrangements that have been made for them will probably also need to change. My circumstances and the other parent's circumstances will also change over time. How often will we review the parenting plan? How will we re-negotiate?
- How will we talk about the unexpected? Not everything in daily life can be planned for. How flexible are we each willing to be regarding the children’s activities? If an invitation or urgent need comes up that means the usual arrangements might need to be changed – can we agree on how to approach each other to discuss the options?
- How will I communicate with the other parent about our children's issues? eg by telephone, e-mail or letter? (You may also want to specify any ways you might not wish to be contacted)
- If there are more than two people sharing parental responsibility, how will each of us communicate with the others? Might we need to plan to ask someone to help us all talk together in specific circumstances? How much say do we think our children should have in these decisions?
- Will we include agreed guidelines about some household rules children need to follow during the time spent with each of us? (eg TV or computer use, nutrition, bedtimes.) Do I recognise that the other parent will parent differently to me and I may need to let go of some control over my children's daily life when they are with the other parent?
- How will we manage items and needs that might carry over from one household to the other eg medicines, appointments, school projects
- Any other issues we think are important?
Note: A time when plans can come unstuck is when one or both of the parents find a new partner. It is often a very emotional time and you may not think clearly then. Is there anything you can agree on in advance about how you can keep the focus on your children's best interests whilst making arrangements, if either of you re-partner?
It will help you to avoid arguments, and deal with differences in remembering what was said, if you write down the agreements you've come to as part of your parenting plan.
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Working out who our children live with and spend time with
One of the things about making a parenting plan that many parents are particularly worried about, is working out where their children will live and how much time each child will spend with whom.
Too hard to talk about?
There are usually strong emotions around this topic for parents and people can act in ways that they might not usually act, or may not even agree with. Some parents can get focused on who will 'win', may have long debates about where children live and how much time each parent should get, and in this way they continue old arguments between the adults.
Before getting caught up in conflicts about what is fair and unfair for each parent, you could get ready to make a parenting plan by focusing your thinking on what will be best for your children. Before having the discussion about arrangements for your children with the other parent, it can also be helpful for you to talk to a trusted person or professional to get clear about what you think is best. Hopefully the other parent will also have thought about this. It may be that a combination of both your ideas will be what you finally decide on.
What other things are useful to consider when working out who our children live with and spend time with?
- How far apart do we live from each other
- (How might this affect our children and each of us? Eg travel time, transport options, costs, priorities?)
- Our children's age and maturity. Each child's developmental stage is a really important consideration when making arrangements. For example, it can be better for very young children to spend short periods of time with the other parent but on a more frequent basis. And older teenagers are often spending increasing time away from parents even in families that aren't separating.
You can talk to an advisor on the Family Relationship Advice Line 1800 050 321 about the different needs of children at different ages.
- Have we built in agreed time for our children to see the other people who are important to them? (eg their friends, grandparents, step-parents, or step siblings, other relatives, family friends etc). Even if I don't like or get on with someone from the other parent's family, that person may be important to my children.
- When we realistically assess our other commitments, and the commitments and location of others who care for our children, are we sure that our ideas will be practical?
- Which of us will take key responsibility for supporting each of the activities our children have? (eg sport, lessons, medical needs)
- What arrangements might work best for the children and for us when our children are picked up and dropped off?
- Where will our children spend holidays, birthdays and other special occasions? If either of us travels for holidays, work or special events, this may impact on time our children might normally spend with either of us. How can we handle this in a way that is good for our children?
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Are there any legal requirements that apply when working out who my children live with and spend time with?
No, the law does not set out 'standard arrangements' for children and there is no definite legal age when children themselves can decide where they will live or who they will spend time with. You will need to consider your children's age, maturity and feelings before consulting them about their opinions and needs.
The law states that when a court makes decisions about your children, the children's needs must come first. It states that children have the right to have a meaningful relationship with both their parents. They also have the right to be protected from harm.
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How do I change a parenting plan?
A Parenting Plan can be cancelled or changed at any time by a written agreement between the people who signed the original plan. Make sure every person signs the new agreement and that it is dated.
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Parenting Plans and the Law - for parents who may need to go to Court
Even with help, not all separated parents are able to agree on parenting arrangements, or the agreements they have made are not kept.
In some cases it may not be safe to try to reach agreement, or there may be other difficulties or urgency that prevents parents from making agreements about their children.
If this applies to you, you may need to go to court.
If you already have a parenting plan but still need to go to court, the plan will be taken into account by the court if...
- it is in writing
- it is dated and signed by both parents
- it was made free from any threats, pressure or intimidation
Equal Shared Parental Responsibility
Except where there are issues of violence or abuse, the law presumes that it is in the best interest of a child for the parents to have equal shared parental responsibility.
This does not mean that the child should necessarily spend equal time with each parent.
Rather, equal shared parental responsibility means that both parents have an equal role in making decisions about major long-term issues that affect their children.
If you agree to share parental responsibility, you will need to consult with each other and make an effort to come to joint decisions about long-term issues. However, when the child is spending time with you, you will not usually need to consult on decisions about daily life things like what the child eats or wears because these are not usually major long-term issues.
Although the parenting plan you make with the other parent is not in itself legally enforceable, if you go on to court at any time the court will have to consider the terms of the most recent Parenting Plan when making a parenting order in relation to your children, if they believe that is in the best interests of your children.
The court will also consider whether both parents have met with your obligations in relation to your children, which may include the terms of a Parenting Plan. In this way the law intends to further encourage parents to stick to the agreements they make.
Parents can also make a parenting plan legally enforceable by asking the court to make consent orders in line with the agreements recorded in the parenting plan.
If you already have a court order made on or after 1 July 2006 setting out parenting arrangements, you can both agree to change those arrangements by a Parenting Plan (unless the court order says that the order cannot be changed in this way).
This also means that parents will not be required to go back to court to change the parenting order each time, which makes it easier for you to agree on any changes that may be needed as your children's needs change.
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Family Dispute Resolution
Parents are required to attend family dispute resolution and make a genuine effort to reach agreement about arrangements for their children before they can go to court for parenting orders.
Applications to a family law court for a parenting order must include a certificate issued by an accredited Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner stating genuine effort was used to resolve the dispute through family dispute resolution.
It is important to note that only those parents who want to go to court over a parenting issue will be legally required to attend family dispute resolution.
Other situations where Family Dispute Resolution does not apply
A number of exceptions to the law apply to make sure that people are not required to attend family dispute resolution in some circumstances. These include.
- where there has been violence or abuse or there is an immediate risk of violence or abuse
- where there is a reason for urgency
- when one or more of the people involved in an application to the court can't effectively take part in family dispute resolution (this may be because of a significant illness or disability, because of living too far away from dispute resolution services or for some other reason).
What if the other parent does not want to spend time with our children?
Especially if the children want to spend time with their other parent, you can ask a Family Relationship Centre or another Family Dispute Resolution service to help. The service may be able to encourage the other parent to come along to a discussion of your children's needs, as long as this is safe for both of you. This process may help the reluctant parent to re-connect with their children and their children's needs in a positive way.
The law cannot make a parent spend time with or talk to their children if that person does not want to.
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What actually are my parental responsibilities?
- Consider your childrens needs as a priority and make arrangements for your children that are in their best interests.
- Protect your children from physical or psychological harm or the risk of harm.
- Encourage your children to talk to and see the other parent regularly, unless this would place your children at risk of harm.
- Not say or do things that stop your children communicating with the other parent, or that might harm their relationship with the other parent.
- Encourage and assist your children to enjoy their culture.
- Maintain your children financially.
- In most cases, participate in major long-term decisions about your children.
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Parenting Plans, Child Support and Centrelink
Any changes to the care arrangements for children can have an impact on child support, income support and family assistance payments.
If your children are covered by child support laws, your parenting plan can include child support provisions, but those provisions will have no effect, and will not be enforceable, unless your parenting plan is also a child support agreement.
Special provisions apply when making child support agreements and it is important to talk to the Child Support Agency about your options. Once a child support agreement is accepted by the Child Support Agency it can only be changed by another agreement or by a court order.
Your ability to make an agreement about child support may also be affected if you are entitled to receive more than the minimum amount of Family Tax Benefit A from the Family Assistance Office.
This can be a very complex area.
For more information, talk to an advisor on the Family Relationship Advice Line 1800 050 321
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Links to Parenting Plan Templates/Example
- pp 45 - 46 of the Child Support Agency booklet: Me, My Kids and My Ex.
- Relationships Australia Parenting Plan: Share the Care – Collaborative Parenting Apart