Why develop a parenting plan?

One of the biggest complaints that co-parents have about their child’s other parent is uncertainty. Often expectations that one parent have are different to those of the other parent.

This difference in expectations causes problems in the co-parenting relationship, frustration and all too often anger that can escalate into family violence.

The repeated text messages, abusive emails and phone calls that create such distress could often be avoided by establishing and sticking to some simple rules about how you will treat each other and share the most important job you will ever have. The support, care and love you share for your child.

A parenting plan is a document that you both agree to that outlines how you will share the care of a child and sometimes how you will treat each other while doing that. To be classed as a parenting plan it must be written, signed and dated.

How to develop a parenting plan

You can get together over a coffee and work out a plan but for many people that is just too hard to do without some assistance. The reality is that separation can be painful for everyone involved and meeting up with a former partner when you are still upset or angry can be difficult. You may say things you later regret or they might causing you to feel frightened or sad.

The best place to get that assistance is from a Family Dispute Resolution Service such as the one run by Mediation Centre. Go to our Family Dispute Resolution page to find out more.
Unlike Consent Orders which have to be documented in a specific format and submitted to the Family Court to be made into orders your Parenting Plan can be in your own words and as high level or detailed as you need it to be.

A plan to parent

Think back to the love you felt the first time you held your child in your arms.

You may have been feeling awed by the reality of the brand new life that you had brought into the world.

You may have made a vow to yourself that you would do anything you can to nurture and support your child. If you are like most of us you may not have always lived up to your hopes for yourself but now is a time to refocus and really think about what is best for your child.

The process to develop a parenting plan is talk about what you each of you believe is in best interest for your child. That is probably going to take a bit of talking through because if you are separating there are clearly some issues that have affected your relationship. It is a challenging time for you. It is also a really challenging time for your children. Their lives are being changed forever and it is quite likely that they are not very pleased about it.

During this challenging time children need the love and support of both of their parents and other significant people, such as grandparents if it is safe for them to spend that time, even if you feel sad and lonely when they are away from you. 
Some certainty for the future is also important for everyone.
The family law system encourages separating parents to work out arrangements for children between themselves without going to court. One way parents can work out how to share the care of their children is to put into place for their children is to make a parenting plan.What is best for your child is the most important thing for you to consider when you make your parenting plan.
A parenting plan is a voluntary agreement that covers the day to day responsibilities of each parent, the practical considerations of a child’s daily life, as well as how parents will agree and consult on important long-term issues about their children. It can be changed at any time as long as both parents agree.

Who can make a parenting plan?

To be a parenting plan under the Family Law Act 1975, the plan must be made and signed by both parents of the child or other people if they are the legal gardians of the child. However, other persons, such as grandparents or step-parents, can be included in a parenting plan.

Parenting plans and family law

Under the Family Law Act 1975 a parenting plan must be in writing, signed and dated by both parents (or legal guardians) It must be made free from any threat, duress or coercion.
A parenting plan is not legally enforceable and is different from a parenting order, which is made by a court either at the end of a trial or from a Consent Order application. 
If parents end up in court at some later date, the court must consider the terms of the most recent parenting plan when making parenting orders in relation to the child, if it is in the best interests of the child to do so. The court will also consider the extent to which both parents have complied with their obligations in relation to the child, which may include the terms of a parenting plan.
If there is a court order made after 1 July 2006 setting out parenting arrangements, the parents can agree to change those arrangements by a parenting plan unless the court order specifically says that it can only be amended by an order of the court. The purpose of parenting plans is to make it easier for parents to change the way they care for children as their childrens needs or the parents circumstances change.
If your parenting plan does change an existing parenting order, you may not be able to enforce those parts of your old parenting order that are inconsistent with the terms of your new parenting plan.

What can you include in a parenting plan?

What you will include in your parenting plan will depend on the needs of your family. Your plan will be unique to your needs. It should be written in a way that is free of blame and be simple and practical and as specific as necessary. It can deal with any aspect of the care, welfare and development of your child.
The kinds of things that may be covered in a plan include:
  • how the parents will share parental responsibility and consult about decisions (like which school the child will attend and medical decisions)
  • who the child will live with
  • what time the child will spend with each parent
  • what time the child will spend with other people, such as grandparents
  • how the child will communicate with each parent or other people (eg by phone, email or video calls)
  • what arrangements need to be made for special days, such as birthdays and holidays
  • what process can be used to change the plan or resolve any disagreements about the plan
  • what arrangements can be made for disruptions to normal routine, such as student free days or when your child is sick
  • who will pay the necessary expenses for the child such as schooling and extra activities as well as day to day expences necessary to maintain the child. Child support and maintenance have some special rules under the Family Law Act 1975, Centrelink and Child Support Agency. and
  • any other issue about parental responsibility or the care, welfare and development of the child.

Can I include other things in my parenting plan?

To be a parenting plan under the Family Law Act 1975 your agreement must deal with an aspect of the care, welfare and development of a child.
It can still be a parenting plan if it includes other thinks such as spousal maintenance or matters to do with property but those aspects of the plan are not enforcable.
You need Consent Orders or a Binding Financial Agreement to make your agrement about money enforcable.

 Parenting plans, child support and Centrelink

Child support is calculated based on who the children live with and your incomes. Changes to the care arrangements for your children can affect child support, income support and family assistance payments.
If you provide a copy of your parenting plan to the Child Support Agency they can base your care levels in your child support assessment on the care levels outlined in the plan. There is a calculator on their website that may help you to work out how changes you are considering may affect child support. https://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/dhs/child-support
If your parenting plan specifies amounts for child support payments, Child Support cannot enforce it unless it is also a valid child support agreement and you or the other parent ask Child Support to accept it.
There are some conditions that must be met before the Child Support Agency can accept a child support agreement. For example, parents who agree to less child support than the amount assessed under the child support formula can do so, as long as they get legal advice.
The type of agreement you make, and the amount of child support you agree to pay or receive, can affect your child support Family Tax Benefit Part A entitlement. The amount of Family Tax Benefit Part A you receive is based on CS’s formula assessment, not the child support agreement.

More Information about Child Support and Income Support

For help and information contact:

Other things to think about when developing your plan

When developing your parenting plan you may have to think about the legal implications of making a parenting plan.It is always advisable to seek legal advice before entering into any form of agreement, especially if you have not yet worked out your financial separation.  You can book a Family Law Legal Advice and Strategy Session through Mediation Centre.

How to resolve disputes about the terms of your plan or changes to the plan

The purpose of a parenting plan is to help you to co-parent in a way that minimises conflict and helps you to provide the care and support your child needs to grow and thrive in mind, body and spirit.
You may find some of the following useful:
  • Having a clause in your parenting plan that identifies how any disagreements about the parenting plan can be resolved is highly recommended.
  • Being aware that sometimes plans need to be varied due to changes in your life or the life of the other parent such as a new job, the desire to move houses or one or both of you forming a new relationship. All of these things and more will require an adjustment to your parenting and that should flow on to an adjustment to your parenting plan.
  • You may find it useful to include procedures in your plan for varying the plan at points in your child’s life that you know will bring changes such as when your child starts primary or secondary school
When deciding what to include in your plan there are a number of other important issues you need to consider. If parents cannot agree about their children, and decide to go to court, the court will also be required to consider these issues when making a parenting order. These issues are set out below.

Best interests of the child

Under family law when making decisions about a child their needs must come first and so the most important thing for you to consider is what is best for your child.

Children have the right to know both their parents and the right to be protected from harm. However, the safety of the child must come first when considering your child’s best interest.

If there has been family violence in the past thinking about how this may impact the child’s care and shared parenting is very important. Other things you might want to think about include any views the child has expressed (although realise that they may have told each of you different things), the child’s relationship with both of you and other people significant to them such as their grandparents but also friends and any practical difficulties.

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 spend equal time with each parent. Equal shared parental responsibility means that both parents have an equal role in making decisions about major long-term issues that affect their children, such as schooling and health care.
If you have 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 things like what the child eats or wears because these are not usually major long-term issues. You may find it useful to include a process in your plan about how you are going to consult with each other when you need to make decisions about long-term issues.

Equal time

If the child spending equal time with each of you is reasonably practicable, and in the best interests of the child, you could consider an arrangement of this kind. For example if the child spends one week with you and the next week with the other parent.

What does ‘reasonably practicable’ mean?

You need to consider whether it is practical to make this type of arrangement for your child based on your circumstances. The types of things you could think about include:
  • how far apart you and the other parent live from each other
  • the ability of you and the other parent to implement this type of arrangement e.g what hours you work and how close do live to the childs school
  • how well you and the other parent communicate with each other and can resolve any problems that come up with the arrangement, and
  • the impact the arrangement will have on your child.

Substantial and significant time

If the child spending equal time with both of you is not appropriate, you could consider an arrangement that allows both parents to spend substantial and significant time with the child, provided that this is reasonably practicable and in the best interests of the child.

What is substantial and significant time?

This refers to a child spending time with both parents on a mix of weekends, holidays and regular days and nights. It means both parents are involved in the child’s daily routine, as well as sharing in special events (like birthdays) and other events of significance (like weddings).

Difficulties complying with a parenting plan?

If either of you is having difficulties complying with your parenting plan and you can’t talk about and resolve the difficulties without some assistance then the first step will usually be family dispute resolution.  With the help of a family dispute resolution practitioner you may be able to understand the source of the difficulty and be able to change your existing agreement or make a new parenting plan.
Call us to find out more about Family Dispute Resolution through Mediation Centre – 03 9020 4514 or use this form to book in for a pre-mediation session.
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