BY LOUISE THORSEN
A robust parenting plan is an important resource for families after separation. It can help to reduce conflict so parents have emotional space to focus on the best interests of their children. The most successful plans are practical, workable and specific, so that everyone knows where they stand and what they are responsible for. Here is some info on how to make it happen.
Families know best what works for them. The legal system does not have to be involved if parents can agree on parenting arrangements between themselves. If it is difficult to talk about at first, there is help available from mediation services. Some local services are: Geelong Family Relationship Centre and Relationship Matters.
Parenting plans developed in this way are informal. They are not enforceable by the courts. If parents want a plan to be enforceable they can make an application to the court for ‘consent orders’. This means the Court will take the plan parents have come up with and convert it into a Court Order. You will need some legal help for this. See this list of local lawyers or contact the Law Institute of Victoria.
Parents are expected to try mediation before making an application to Court. The new merged Federal Circuit Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA) has introduced enhanced dispute resolution processes within the Court itself so the mediation process continues when you get there. The aim is to reduce cost, emotional stress and the time taken to reach an outcome.
Best Interests of Children
Whether your plan is formal or informal it must focus on the best interests of your children. The law says that this is the most important thing in parenting arrangements. The primary considerations are:
- for children to have a meaningful relationship with both parents and
- the need to protect children from harm and abuse
Other things to think about are a child’s:
- relationships with grandparents and extended family
- health and any special needs
- right to enjoy and maintain a connection with their culture
Shared Parental Responsibility
Parents have ‘equal shared parental responsibility’. This means they are each responsible for helping their children reach their full potential. Ideally, parents will have equal input into the big picture decisions for their children about health, education, religion and culture. A robust parenting plan will include a mechanism to help resolve disagreements. For example, you might agree to go to mediation to help find solutions when you can’t come up with any yourselves. It is not in a child’s best interests for their parents to be stuck in conflict.
Your parenting plan will set out shared care arrangements that meet the best interests of your children. This might mean spending more time with one parent if the other travels for work or lives a long way from the children’s schools and regular activities. In these plans you might include regular face time or phone calls with the children. A minority of parent’s circumstances might make a 50/50 care arrangement possible.
Realistic plans take into account everyone’s particular circumstances. They provide for common contingencies so everyone is clear about what the next step is. Flexibility is a feature of realistic plans. Circumstances will change as your children grow. Your plan can change too so that it continues to meet their best interests.
A short list of things to start thinking about is:
- how parents are going to communicate about children’s issues
- what happens in an emergency
- parents’ work arrangements
- the distance from school and activities
- can extended family help with drop off & pick-up if needed
- changeover locations convenient to everyone
- what to do for special days and holidays
- financial arrangements for supporting the children
- what to do if the plan needs to change
Focus on children’s best interests and willingness to compromise are key ingredients in a successful plan. Learn more from Family Relationships’ Online Parenting Plan Brochure.
Louise Thorsen has been a lawyer at Barwon Community Legal since 2014. Her super power is getting children to where they need to be on time, well fed, dressed in the right uniform and feeling happy about it.