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Parenting Plans

A Parenting Plan must deal with one or more of the following matters:

  • the person or persons with whom the child is to live,
  • the time that the child is to spend with another person or other persons,
  • the allocation of parental responsibilities for a child,
  • how parents consult about decisions to be made,
  • communication the child is to have with others,
  • maintenance of a child,
  • how to resolve disputes about the plan,
  • how to change the plan to for changing needs of the child parents and
  • any aspect of the care, welfare or development of the child or any other aspects of parental responsibility for a child.

A Parenting Order may be varied by a later Parenting Plan, but Parenting Plans cannot be enforced as an Order. When an application is made to a Court for Orders in relation to a child, the most recent Parenting Plan will be considered, if it is in the child’s best interest.

A parenting plan will be unworkable where:

  • both Consent Orders and the plan deal with the same subject matter.
  • the plan is vague and uncertain,
  • the plan is silent on important issues or
  • the plan deals with issues that cannot be part of a parenting plan such as Child Support or spouse maintenance.

Why Every Family Should have One

Divorcing parents are often so busy with their own anger or arguing over who gets what to remember their most important shared property their children.   By law, parents have a shared responsibility, which means that both parents must take care of their children’s financial, emotional and physical needs.  Family law in Australia encourages parents to work together on these issues and encourages families to create a “parenting plan” before divorce or the termination of a de facto relationship.

The purpose of a parenting plan is to detail the responsibilities and rights of each parent in order to do what’s best for the children.  A good parenting plan includes a day-to-day schedule for the children,  a break-down of time that each parent is to spend with the child for every day of the year, including all civil, religious and school holidays, payments for all of the various expenses, including medical, dental and after school activities, and how the parents will settle future disagreements. The court cannot grant a divorce order until it is satisfied that proper parenting arrangements are in place.  If parents are unable to create a parenting plan on their own, the court will do it for them.

The best parenting plan is one made by the parents themselves. Some parents are able to do this on their own, or with the help of a mediator or another trained professional in other methods of Family Dispute Resolution.

While a parenting plan is an agreement between the parents and cannot be enforced by the courts, there are legal remedies if a parent does not follow the plan.  The other parent may turn to the court and the court may make new orders based on the original parenting plan.

Below are five reasons to make a parent plan.

Everybody knows where they stand

A good parenting plan will include everything from which nights the children sleep at Dad’s house to what religion they will be brought up in to how the parents will settle disagreements between themselves. This limits places for disagreement and fighting between parents and gives them the tools to resolve disputes when they arise.  There’s no disagreement about where the kids will go for Christmas because it’s written in the plan.

More importantly, the children have stability. No matter what the arrangement, divorce or separation is hard on the children.  But having a regular routine, knowing that both parents agree on a particular decision and maintaining a loving relationship with both parents will make the transition and the coming years  easier.

Building Trust

Most likely, there is a lot of mistrust with the termination of the relationship.  Oddly, a parenting plan can help parents rebuild their faith in one another.   Creating the plan may also allow parents to hear from their children what they need and want.   Children, who may feel insecure in the new family setup, may be able to find a way to overcome emotional insecurity and learn to trust the family relationships again.

Starting Fresh

Laying out the plan ahead of time is not just good for the kids. it’s good for the parents too.  Following divorce or the end of a de facto relationship, parents have their own issues to cope with – living on one income, taking care of a home, and perhaps, even starting a new relationship.   Each parent needs to find time for him or herself to begin fresh but still be a responsible, caring parent.  A parenting plan that lays out the when and where, and leaves less room for surprises creates stability and structure for the parents as well as the children.

Financial Planning for Present and Future

A good parenting plan will detail who covers which expenses.   In addition to the basics like food and clothing, there are many “extras” that also need to be considered, including special medical and dental expenses, after-school activities and summer camp.  As children get older, parents need to think about driving lessons, university fees, and even weddings.  A good plan will take the future  and not just the current month or year  into consideration.  The current parenting plan doesn’t need to have all of these expenses included already, but it should provide a way for the parents to work out the division of these costs as they arise.  For example, parents may agree on percentages of incomes to be paid to a university fund for each child.    This prevents arguments between the “ex’s” and allows both sides to properly plan for the future.

A method for working it out

No plan is foolproof, and one of the most important parts of a good parenting plan is the mechanism for settling disputes.  For divorcing couples, this might even be the first time there is a plan for such inevitabilities in place.  Each family must figure out what works best for them.   Some may settle disputes by meeting over coffee in a neutral place.  Others may feel an outside mediator is necessary.   In many cases, just knowing a system for resolving problems exists helps families work through any difficulties that arise.

And one last note…..

Despite the plan, parents should remember that parenting doesn’t always follow a plan, despite the good intentions of both parents.   It’s inevitable that one parent will suddenly have an amazing work or vacation opportunity and ask the other parent to fill in, or a child will want both parents to be involved in a special project.   Parents need to remember that the children are at the center of any good plan.  They are not machines, they can’t always follow the adult rules parents make for them and they have their own needs and wants.   Parents need to remain open-minded, flexible and fair, even if every detail is not written into the plan.

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child arrangements Parenting Plans Parenting Plans Parenting Plans

What is a Parenting Plan?

Australian law holds both parents responsible for their children.  Even when parents separate or divorce, both parents are obligated to take care of their children financially, providing them with all of their basic needs, education and health.  A parenting plan is an agreement between the parents of the children, laying out each person’s responsibilities, obligations and commitments.

Division 4 of the Family Law Act, 1975 details what may be included in a parenting plan, but the list is not exhaustive.  Generally, a parenting plan should include the division of responsibility for the children, whether or not there are third parties involved, maintenance for the children, how decisions are made, the forms of communication between the parents and between the children and the parents (when they are with the other parent), and ideally, how future disputes will be settled.  A primary goal of the plan is to lay out as many of the possible issues involved in parenting in order to allow for future changes and avoid going to court.  At all times, the children’s best interests should be kept in mind.

A good parenting plan is very detailed.  It lays out an annual schedule of visits, including who picks up and drops off the children.  A parenting plan also discusses how big decisions, like where the children will go to school or what religion they will be raised in will be made and by whom.  It should also give space for each parent to make certain decisions independently when the children are with them, ie what do they kids eat for breakfast or how much t.v. do they get to watch.

In order for the parenting plan to be legal, it must be: (1) written; (2) made between the parents; (3) signed by both parents; (4) dated and; (5) deals with the issues listed above and in section 63(C)(2) (link to this section).   A parenting plan is not legally binding, however, unless it is registered in court.

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child arrangements Parenting Plans Parenting Plans Parenting Plans

What is a “Parenting Order” and how does it differ from a “Parenting Plan”?

Parents Australian law encourages parents to come to a parenting arrangement or parenting plan on their own.  Many parents, however, are unable to come to an agreement and end up turning to the courts to resolve their parenting dispute.  The court may make a “parenting order”, telling the parents exactly what the parenting arrangement must be.   These may be orders which the parents consent or agree to (consent orders) or the order may be imposed on the parents following a trial or court hearing.  Finally, there are cases that combine parenting orders by consent along with a parenting plan created by the parents.

The primary question the court will ask is what is in the best interests of the children.  The court will look at many factors to decide what is in the child’s best interests, but the two main considerations are the benefit of the child having a meaningful relationship with both parents against the need to protect the child and the need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm as a result of abuse, neglect or family violence.

Other factors the court might consider:  the child’s opinion, his or her relationship with each parent and other relatives, such as grandparents; the particular parent’s role in raising the child, each parent’s financial support, and the lifestyle of the parents.   But the law also allows a judge to consider any other fact or circumstance that the court thinks is relevant”, giving the court a good deal of discretion when giving a parenting order.

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child arrangements Parenting Plans Parenting Plans Parenting Plans

What Every Good Parenting Plan Should Have

No two families alike, especially no two divorcing families.  So parenting plans will differ, depending on the size of the family, religious affiliation, professional status of parents, income, educational needs and location, just to name a few.  The first step to creating the plan is simply sitting down together and talking.  If parents were unable to open the lines of communication during marriage, this might be an even harder task now.  But both sides must remember that the children’s needs and best interests are the priority and they come first in the parenting plan.  With that in mind, below are some essential issues that every plan should have, along with some extra ideas that families might want to consider for their plan.

A schedule for the children

This is a schedule for the children for school vacations, national and religious holidays and day-to-day living.  In the ideal, it looks towards the future, so schedules can be created on a yearly basis, with holidays and visitation days switching each year (ie Mom has the children for Christmas in odd years and Dad has them for summer holidays in even years).

Decision Making

A good plan should determine the authority and responsibilities of each parent.  The parenting plan should determine who makes which decisions.  Some parents decide that when the children are with a parent, that parent makes day to day decisions.   For young children, this might include what they eat, how often they bathe, how homework is done and when they go to sleep.  For older children decision-making will involve issues of computer and cell phone use, dating, curfews, car use and more.

The plan should also consider long-term, “bigger” decisions and give authority to either one or both parents on matters like education, health, extracurricular activities and religious upbringing.  The parents might agree that regardless of how decision-making is divided up, either parent is allowed to make emergency decisions regarding the children’s health or safety.

Taking care of the children

The parenting plan should take into account specific parenting responsibilities.  Sometimes issues come up because both parents want to be involved (for example, meeting the child’s teacher) and sometimes neither parent is able to take responsibility (for example, who stays home when a child is sick).   What about medical and dental appointments, or transporting the children between homes?   Whether there is one child or four, these questions come up regularly.  Some plans state that the parent in charge that day is responsible for these tasks.  Other plans use the “divide and conquer” method, giving dad all medical and dental tasks, say, while mom deals with all educational responsibilities.

A Method for Communicating and Sharing Information

Despite all the effort, parents will need to communicate with each other and share information.  Online calendars and schedules that can be shared and updated are a great method for keeping each other informed of changes.   Emailing and text messages enable fast communication when a quick decision needs to be made.  The plan should detail the method or methods chosen and the expectation that parents will make every effort to keep each other in the loop.

Financial Responsibility

Laying out the financial commitments and rights of each parent is an important part of the plan.  If one parent is paying child support, the plan should explain what this includes.  The plan should also determine who covers additional expenses for the children like summer camp, public transportation, special activities and pocket money.  Are both parents paying into a college or savings fund for each child?  How much should each parent put aside?  Every family is different so parents should sit down and work through as many of the expenses they currently have or foresee having in the future.

A Way to Manage Disagreements

No plan is perfect and sometimes disagreements arise.  Parents need to have a method in place for working through these disagreements.  The plan can require parents to first try working it out on their own or turning to mediation.  When parents can’t resolve their differences, arbitration may be required.  These are preferred alternatives to court because they allow each parent to be heard and help the parents hand-craft a solution that satisfies everyone.  Generally, court should be the last resort.

Evaluating and Changing the Plan

Parents and children change over time.  Sometimes it will be necessary to make changes to the parenting plan.  What happens when one parent needs to relocate?   What happens when the children get a bit older and want to make changes to the plan?  The plan should have a system for dealing with the changing needs of the family members.  Some plans require an evaluation every year.   Others might require a family discussion to get input from everyone involved.  Whatever the approach, it should be described in the parenting plan  and followed. The new plan can also be submitted to the court for orders.

An experienced family lawyer can help families create a plan that’s appropriate for them.  Below are some suggested templates for a parenting plan.

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child arrangements Parenting Plans Parenting Plans Parenting Plans

Can a Parenting Plan be Changed or Modified?

A good parenting plan should discuss the many possible surprises and changes that might occur  a parent relocates, a medical emergency, financial circumstances change but no plan can foresee every possible need for modification or adjustment.   Section 63(D) of the Family Law Act, 1975 allows a parenting plan to be “varied or revoked by agreement in writing” between the two parties.

If a parenting plan was registered with the court, and then one or both sides wish to modify it, court papers must be filed.  Contact an experienced family lawyer to find out how to modify a current parenting plan.

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child arrangements Parenting Plans Parenting Plans Parenting Plans

Parenting Issues

Each of the parents of a child has responsibility for the child and a court can make an order which alters aspects of a parents responsibility toward their child. For example, a court could give one parent sole responsibility for decisions concerning a child’s education

As a starting point it is presumed that it is in the best interests of a child for parents to have equal shared parental responsibility for the child. This presumption is dropped if a parent has engaged in family violence.

Shared parental responsibility means parents must consult with each other about major long term issues affecting the child, such as education, religious upbringing and major medical treatment. Shared parental responsibility does not mean children must spend equal time with each parent, however they might spend substantial and significant time with the child. Parents will not spend equal time with their children if it is not reasonably practical or in the child’s best interests.

Substantial and significant time means:

  • the time the child spends with the parent includes both weekend and week days and
  • the parent is able to be involved in the child’s daily routine and occasions and events that are important to the child or the parent.

Case: What is reasonably practicable in Mt Isa?