Care arrangements when parents have separated
Reaching your own agreement
When the parents of a child separate, one of the most important issues to work out is how they’ll arrange the care of their child, including whether one or both parents will have day-to-day care and, if only one parent has day-to-day care, when and how the other parent will have contact with the child.
It’s much better if the parents can reach an agreement themselves about care arrangements. The Care of Children Act specifically refers to these kinds of agreements, which it calls “parenting agreements”. Although a parenting agreement isn’t legally binding like a court order or a commercial contract, the Act specifically allows for a parenting agreement to be made into a Family Court order. See “Parenting agreements” below in this section.
Ways of resolving disputes about care arrangements
The Family Court provides access to a Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) service, where a mediator will help you try to reach an agreement. This process is free to people whose income is below a certain amount; other people will need to pay. See “About the Family Court / ‘Family Dispute Resolution’: Mediation through the Family Court” in this chapter.
If you decide to take your dispute to the Family Court, you usually won’t be able to do this unless you and the other person have already been through the Family Dispute Resolution process with an approved FDR mediator. You (the person applying) must usually also have attended one of the Parenting Through Separation courses provided through the Family Court.
Applying to the Family Court may also trigger other processes – for example, in some cases the judge may appoint a lawyer to represent your child (see below, “Parenting orders / How the court process works in parenting order cases / When a lawyer can be appointed for your child”).
If the dispute isn’t resolved at an earlier stage, such as at a settlement conference, the last resort will be a court hearing (a “defended hearing”) at which a Family Court judge will decide what the care arrangements will be (see below in this section, “Parenting orders / The court hearing: How the judge decides what to do”).
“Parenting Through Separation” courses
The Family Court provides free “Parenting Through Separation” courses, to help separated parents understand how separation affects their children and to help them manage the process and deal more constructively with each other.
The course will be four hours long, held over one or two days. The courses are delivered to small groups by an experienced facilitator. Your group will include other parents who are separated or who are thinking about separating.
Note: If your ex-partner also goes to one of the courses, they won’t be at the same sessions as you.
You usually can’t apply for a parenting order from the Family Court unless you’ve attended a Parenting Through Separation course in the last two years.
Note: For access to benefits from Work and Income when you’ve separated from your children’s other parent, see the chapter “Dealing with Work and Income”, under “Types of benefits”. See “How much child support will I get paid?” for the potential effect of a Family Court parenting order on what benefit you may be entitled to.