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What sort of agreements can we make about arrangements for the children?

Many separated parents have informal agreements in place about the parenting of their children. The parents reach agreement with or without the help of mediation or counselling services. Neither parent can enforce an informal agreement against the other.

Parents can also apply for court orders by consent. Agreement is usually reached through negotiation between the parents with the assistance of dispute resolution practitioners or lawyers.

Seek legal advice before reaching any agreement about where the children live and where they spend their time, these arrangements can influence property settlement matters and child support.

What is parental responsibility?

Each of the parents of a child has parental responsibility for the child, however a court may make an Order to override this. For example, a court may give one parent sole parental responsibility for decisions concerning a child’s education.

Where there is an Order for equal shared parental responsibility then the parents must make joint decisions about major long term issues, such as education, religious upbringing and major medical treatment.

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.

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?

Parenting Arrangements

A family breakdown brings about many emotional issues, parenting arrangements are probably the most difficult to resolve.

  • Where will the children live?
  • When will each parent get to see the children?
  • How long will each parent have with the children?

These questions form the basis of all parenting arrangements, but the key issue for the arrangements is what is in the child’s best interests?

Parenting arrangements after separation can be finalized by way of Consent Orders or a Parenting Plan.

The lawyers at Mathews Family Law & Mediation Specialists Melbourne have significant experience and expertise with regard to issues that affect children. We can help you and your family develop parenting arrangements that recognize your child’s best interests. We can help provide the stability your children needs and minimise the impact of the changes on their lives. Formalizing parenting arrangements is also beneficial where there is a high level of conflict and a limited ability for the parents to communicate amicably between themselves.

Sometimes arrangements are based on informal verbal agreements with your ex-partner, but in most cases it is best for these arrangements to be written and recognised by a Court. We consider it is best for parents to have made arrangements in advance for each parent’s time with the children, particularly for special events such as Birthdays, Easter and Christmas.  An agreement can help avoid disputes in the future about parenting arrangements for the children, reduce conflict and enhance security and stability for children.

Once agreement is reached we can draft Consent Orders so that the agreement is formally recognised by the Australian legal system.

If negotiation between the parties does not resolve all outstanding issues, we can assist you through arranging and assisting your participation in mediation. If an Agreement can’t be reached, or in the case of extenuating circumstances then Court processes might be required. Our highly experienced litigators will exercise care and compassion combined with the determination and expertise required to obtain the best results.

Mathews Family Law is a Melbourne family law firm.

Please contact us on 1300 635 529 to speak with a family lawyer from our law firm today. You can also send through your enquiry online now and we will contact you shortly.

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.

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.

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.

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.

What is reasonably practicable in Mt Isa?

The mother of a four year old child had difficulties finding employment in Mt Isa and therefore wanted to return to live in Sydney. Despite the limited employment prospects for the mother, a Federal Magistrate ordered the mother and father should have equal shared responsibility, this meant the mother would continue to live in Mt Isa. It was not until the mother took her appeal to the High Court that the importance of an order being reasonably practicable was highlighted and the court agreed with the mother that living in Mt Isa was not reasonably practicable for her and therefore not in the best interests of the child.