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What is a Parenting Plan and why do the Family Court use them?

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A Parenting Plan is an agreement between parents (and sometimes other family members) that outlines the arrangements for co-parenting and the responsibilities of each parent after a separation or divorce. It aims to cover the practical aspects of parenting after separation and therefore reduce conflict and ensure the wellbeing and best interests of the children involved.

Why should I make a Parenting Plan?

Successful parenting within a relationship requires constant communication, as there are always decisions to be made, but most couples find communication very difficult as they work out how to co-parent post separation. Decisions that would normally be easy to make often become emotionally charged and create conflict. A baseline agreement can ensure that the breakdown of the relationship has the minimum possible impact on the child and is an excellent starting point to develop a new way of co-parenting.

Agencies such as CAFCASS and the National Association of Contact Centres (NACC) favour the use of parenting plans as moving forwards by agreement is more likely to work in practice than having to resort to court every time there is a dispute between parents.

Is a Parenting Plan appropriate for my family?

It is generally desirable for parents to cooperate with one another following separation in order to minimise its impact on any children affected. Parenting Plans are an excellent way to develop such cooperation. However, you should seek advice if you are concerned that anyone who might come into contact with you or your child might expose you or them to the risk of harm through:

  • Any form of domestic abuse or violence
  • Any actual or attempted child abduction
  • Any child abuse
  • The abuse of drugs, alcohol or other substance misuse
  • Any other safety or welfare concerns

What should a Parenting Plan include?

It is essential to create a parenting plan that is clear, practical, and considers the best interests of the child. One of the benefits of drawing up a comprehensive parenting plan is to ensure that issues are addressed before they arise. For example, as your child progresses through school, they will most likely be invited to their friends’ birthday parties that will fall during the non-resident parent’s contact time. This can often be a source of conflict, as it will require a late change of arrangements. Addressing what to do in these circumstances before they arise can reduce the stress and acrimony that often arises from a change of plans.

While the plan should allow for some flexibility, the NACC have highlighted that ambiguity should be avoided in order to avoid each parent interpreting the plan differently, as this will lead to conflict. It is a worthwhile exercise to go through the elements of a parenting plan with a legal advisor as they will be able to point you to areas that should be addressed that you may not have considered and to ensure that the agreement is clear to both parents.

While specific details may vary based on individual circumstances and legal requirements, some key elements that should be included in a comprehensive parenting plan are:

  • Communication between parents: Detail how parents will communicate about important issues related to the child, such as education, health, and other important decisions. This may also include how disagreements will be resolved, as it is not advisable to resort to court every time you disagree.
  • Living and contact arrangements: Specify the residential schedule for the child, including where the child will live and the days and times they will be in the care of either parent. This should also include details of how and where handovers will take place and how to communicate if either party is running late. It should also include who is responsible for transportation to school or extracurricular activities.
  • Holiday and special occasion schedule: Outline how holidays, birthdays, Christmas and other special occasions will be shared between the parents. This may include agreeing the types of holidays that the children will go on and when passports should be exchanged, if applicable.
  • Childcare arrangements: Address how childcare will be managed when the parents cannot care for the child during their allocated time, including the use of babysitters, relatives, or other caregivers.
  • School and extracurricular activities: Determine how decisions regarding the child’s education, school, and participation in extracurricular activities will be made. You should include how communication with the child’s school should be handled, as it is not always practical for all communication to include both parents.
  • Medical and healthcare provisions: Specify how medical decisions will be made, how medical expenses will be shared, and how any health insurance coverage will be maintained for the child, if applicable.
  • Relocation provisions: Include guidelines for addressing potential relocations of either parent, taking into consideration the impact on the child’s living arrangements and visitation schedule.
  • Parental responsibilities and decision-making: Clarify the responsibilities of each parent and whether joint decision-making is in place for important matters or if one parent has the final say.
  • Dispute resolution process: Outline a process for resolving disagreements or conflicts that may arise between the parents in the future.
  • Communication with the child: Address how the child will communicate with the non-custodial parent during their time with the other parent.
  • Financial provisions: If applicable, include details about child support payments, allocation of other expenses, pocket money and how these may change as the child gets older (for example, if they go to university). If possible, you should also include details of what to do if your financial positions change and
  • Flexibility and changes: Specify whether the parenting plan is flexible and can be adjusted with mutual agreement or whether modifications require court approval.
  • Legal jurisdiction: Mention the legal jurisdiction under which the parenting plan falls, and which laws will govern any disputes.
  • Acknowledgment and signatures: Have both parents sign the parenting plan to show their agreement and commitment to following its terms.

CAFCASS have a draft Parenting Plan on their website which can be a helpful starting point to anyone who is considering using one.

Why does the Family Court use Parenting Plans?

The Family Court has the power to make a range of orders relating to a child’s upbringing including where a child may live, what contact they will have with either parent (and other family members) and to make decisions relating to specific issues relating to the child (such as where they will go to school or whether a parent may relocate with the child).

While the Family Court has a broad range of powers, it tries to limit the scope of its involvement as it is not practical or desirable to govern every aspect of a child’s life via a court order. The Court encourages parents to negotiate and to come to an agreement wherever possible as it recognises that arrangements that are made via agreement are more likely to work in practice than those that are ordered by the court. Arrangements made when a child is in preschool may not work once they are in full time education, and the court discourages parents from coming back to get a ruling every time there is a material change of circumstances.

Parenting Plans are more flexible than court orders as they can allow for changes in circumstances and encourage compromise. While they are not enforceable in the same way that a court order is, the court favours their use as they encourage parents to work out their issues without having to come back to court.

It is possible to formalise them by means of applying for a Consent Order, but they are not usually legally binding as their flexibility can make this difficult because wording is generally not specific enough to be an order of the court (it would be difficult to take your ex-partner to court for breach of a flexible arrangement). Whether they are formalised or not, the nature of the agreement reached within the Parenting Plan would carry a great deal of influence within court proceedings in the event of a dispute in any event.

How should we use the Parenting Plan in practice?

A Parenting Plan can be a substantial document, so it is important to ensure that you can use it on a day to day basis. One of the most helpful ways to do this is via a co-parenting app. OurFamilyWizard has been in use in the US since 2001 and launched in the UK around 4 years ago. It is increasingly used by the Family Court as a means to ensure that parents are able to communicate with one another regarding their children without conflict. The court will often order that parents use the app as the sole means of communication.

Using such an app can offer several benefits, including:

  • Centralized communication: The app provides a single platform for all co-parenting communication, reducing the need for multiple channels (e.g., emails, texts) and preventing miscommunication or lost messages. All communication within the app is time stamped and cannot be edited, which is not only useful in the event of a dispute, but also means that parents think carefully about the way in which they communicate with one another. In addition, the app has a built in “tone monitor” for communication and will ask a user to doublecheck whether they want to send a message that could be perceived as offensive before it is sent to the other party.
  • Shared calendar and scheduling:  it includes a shared calendar that allows parents to coordinate schedules, share important events, and avoid conflicts in visitation and other activities.
  • Shared information: The app includes an information bank that can be used as a centralised location for school reports, information regarding health (eg vaccination status) and other important information regarding the child.
  • Notifications and reminders: The app can send notifications and reminders for scheduled events, reducing the chances of missed appointments or confusion about parenting time.
  • Expense tracking: It offers expense tracking features, making it easier to document and share child-related expenses, which can be helpful for child support or reimbursement purposes.
  • Mediator access: If necessary, mediators or family law professionals can be granted access to the app, allowing them to review communication and assist in resolving any disputes.
  • Privacy and safety: The app provides a secure and private platform for communication, helping to protect sensitive information and prevent potential conflicts with new partners or family members.
  • Reduced conflict: Having a structured communication platform can reduce the potential for heated arguments or emotional exchanges between parents, promoting a more focused and business-like approach to co-parenting.
  • Accountability: Since all communication is documented, it encourages both parents to communicate in a respectful and responsible manner.
  • Consistency for the child: Using a co-parenting app helps create consistency and predictability in the child’s schedule and allows them to see both parents working together even if they live apart.

Can I use my Parenting Plan within OurFamilyWizard?

The features within the app will allow to use your plan within the app. The benefit of this is to simplify and centralise the plan, and the fact that the app allows for mediator access means that third parties, such as mediators, legal professionals and social workers can assist with its development or with and disputes that may arise.

How should I start drawing up a Parenting Plan?

The success of a Parenting Plan largely depends on the commitment and cooperation of both parents in using it as a tool to facilitate better co-parenting communication and organization. They are often constructed via a process of mediation, whether formally (through a mediator) or through correspondence between solicitors or even within the court arena.

The plan needs to be formulated by both parents together to avoid one parent feeling that the other has forced it upon them. As a starting point, you should speak to a qualified legal advisor who can help you to put together what you would like to see included within it.

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