When couples separate one of the most important arrangements they will have to sort out is how they are going to care for their children going forward.
“Shared care” is a term frequently used but it can be helpful, at an early stage, to consider the practicalities of how this can be achieved.
The approach of the courts, if they have to decide matters when parents cannot agree, is always to consider first the welfare of the child and the child’s best interests. The best way to consider the arrangements is therefore to ask yourself how these will work out for the children rather than to become focused on parental rights or “equal” care.
The courts are very supportive now of both parents sharing care of the children and the days are gone when a relationship broke up and the father would only see his children on alternate weekends.
Fathers can expect to have a much larger role in their children’s lives.
A starting point can be to share equally in the school holidays. State schools have approximately 13 weeks holiday a year and private schools 3 to 4 weeks more. The first question for both parents is whether they have sufficient holiday from their jobs to be able to look after the children for half of the school holidays. This will depend on the amount of holiday, the flexibility of employers and also taking into consideration the bank holidays that fall within the school holiday period. If both parents are working full time they can agree to share the care of the children during the holidays but if they have insufficient time away from work during their period it might be, say, that for one or two weeks of the summer holiday the children go to a holiday play scheme or spend time with their grandparents.
If one parent is not working, or their job gives them the school holidays off, they will have to consider how they want to share the holidays. There is the option that the children spend more time with the parent who is not working during the holidays as opposed to using a holiday play scheme when the children are with the other parent. Focus should be on what is best for the children.
Term times can also be shared. If care is going to be shared in the school week consideration needs to be given to where the parents will live in terms of getting the children to school and collecting them. Long journeys are rarely best for the children say on a Monday morning if they have been staying with the parent who lives a long distances from the school as it could mean, say getting up an hour earlier. This can be considered in the plans to resolve finances and the housing needs of each parent.
It is also important for both parents to consider what they can commit to in terms of the arrangements for the children. Say one parent is collecting the children after school on the Thursday and the children will be with that parent until the Tuesday morning then appropriate arrangements with that parent’s work need to be made. This may also depend on the nature of the job and whether a parent has to travel in connection with their job,or stay at work late to meet deadlines, or attend meetings at short notice.
Sometimes arrangements can be made that one parent has more flexibility and collects the children from school with the other parent collecting the children from their former partner’s home. Other options that work for parents is say, for a father who is working full time but can generally commit to the arrangements around his children’s schooling to have an au pair can act as back up if say he is travelling home from London and there is train disruption to provide certainty there will be someone at the school gates. If this is being considered it is best discussed between mother and father at an early stage.
Other alternatives that work for parents is for a grandparent to be the one who does the school collection (and to provide the certainty) taking the child back to their son or daughter’s home and to stay there until the parent gets home from work.
If the practicalities of shared care be discussed at an early stage both parents are able to consider what can work best for them and for their children. It is always preferable to avoid getting into a dispute on “equal time with the children’ and then to find out later that it is not actually going to work for practical reasons.
For shared care to work well for the children it is best that there is regular arrangement. This can often work well over a fortnight with arrangements in place for week one and week two which then repeat on weeks three and four and so on. Planning arrangements around fortnights which then repeats can enable parents to have a weekend with the children and weekdays. This shares the more relaxing time at the weekend.
There does need to be cooperation in relation to the arrangements for the children and their activities. If it is agreed for example that the children will have swimming lessons on a Saturday morning it is important that the parent that weekend takes them to their swimming. Although occasional lessons for swimming or any other activity can be missed it can be quite upsetting for children if they are regularly missing from a class as their learning can fall behind the other members of the class and cause distress for them.
For some activities it can help parents if they each have a swimsuit for the child. It is one less thing to remember to form part of the items that a child needs. Similarly both parents can have wellington boots, pyjamas, and at least one set of school uniform.
There does need to be corporation with parents ensuring the other parent knows what needs to be done say for school if particular items need to be taken in, say, for harvest festival. If the child is in a school play and a costume is required parents need to agree (email is often a very good way of sorting these kind of arrangements out) who is going to provide the outfit or they provide parts each depending on their skills in such matters.
Homework arrangements need to be carefully considered. Generally they would be done when the child is with the parent the day that homework is due. However sometimes homework can be given out on a Wednesday and is due back on the following Monday. It is unfair for the parent say, who has the child Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to assume that homework can be left and have to be done at the weekend the child is with the other parent. It may be this does work if both parents for example agree that Sunday morning is a time for doing homework but there should be discussion how this works best for the children.
At SA Law we have an experienced family team who can advise fully on these kind of matters and have a lot of experience of arrangements and details that worked successfully in other matters.
I would leave you these words of advice. Every time you and your former partner are making a decision about your children ask yourselves the question “Is this decision best for our child?”. That answer will guide you in making the arrangements.