Children arrangements following separation
Broadly, there are two routes for making arrangements for children after you separate and these are the same whether you intend to divorce or you have no plans to do so in the foreseeable future.
If you can agree the arrangements for contact following separation, this is by far the most preferable route. Going to court is invariably stressful, time-consuming and difficult in many ways; it may also become extremely distressing for your children if the situation becomes acrimonious.
When both parents agree
If you both agree about how much time the non-resident parent (the one who does not live with the children on a day-to-day basis) can spend with the children, then you don’t need to complete any official paperwork.
However, it may be a good idea to write down what you have agreed. You might want to draw up a parenting plan that records some of the main decisions you make about child arrangements; this could include:
- regular days that the non resident parent will spend time with the children
- the details of overnight stays – pick up and drop off times etc.
- arrangements for major holidays and celebrations, such as school holidays, birthdays and Christmas
- how and when details need to be agreed for taking children away on holidays3when and how other types of contact might occur – phone calls, messenger chats, Skype calls etc.
- other contact arrangements such as making time for grandparents
A parenting plan can cover all sorts of other child-related issues, such as what might happen in an emergency and how certain decisions will be reached, such as schooling, medical treatment, religious upbringing, etc.
A parenting plan is an informal document and its contents are not enforceable; however, it can be a useful tool to get you thinking about the needs of your children in the longer-term and how you and your ex-partner will handle these issues.
If you want a legally binding plan in place for you and your children, a family law solicitor can help you apply to the court for a consent order. You and your partner will need to apply to the court on a C100 form and there is a fee to pay.
When parents don’t agree
If you and the other parent cannot agree on the arrangements for your children following separation or divorce, a family law solicitor can help you to apply to the court. Your situation will dictate which type of court order or orders you will need in relation to your child or children.
Unless you are a victim of domestic abuse, or there is another compelling reason, you will need to have attended a meeting about mediation before applying for a court order.
A child arrangements order
‘Child arrangements orders’ have replaced contact and residence orders. This type of order specifies:
- where the children will live (and with which parent)
- when and how they will spend time with the non-resident parent
- other types of contact: for instance when (weekends, evenings) and how (phone, Skype, messenger etc.)
A specific issues order
For issues relating to your child’s upbringing you will need a ‘specific issues order’ which can include items such as:
- the school they attend
- whether they will have a religious upbringing
- specific health related issues and treatments, such as immunisation and blood transfusion
- extra-curricular activities
A prohibited steps order
A prohibited steps order can stop the other parent from doing certain things and making certain decisions about the child. Such as:
- removing the child from the jurisdiction
- removing the child from school
- contact with certain people, such as friends and other members of the other parent’s family
What the court will consider
If you apply for a court order in relation to your child (or children) the court will consider their wishes and feelings, their physical, emotional and educational needs, the effect any changes may have, their age, gender, character and background, the possible risk of harm to the child and the ability of the parents to meet the child’s needs.
The child’s best interests will be at the heart of any order made by the court. Please note, the above orders do not deal with child maintenance issues which are handled by the Child Maintenance Service. Find out more about child maintenance here.
Applying for a court order
Either parent can apply for a court order or anyone with parental responsibility. Grandparents, other family members or any other person can make an application to the court, but before doing so they must seek permission from the court to do so (leave of the court).
The court provides guidance on making an application, but your solicitor will be able to explain all you need to know.
Before filling in form C100 you must prove to the court that you have attended a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM). You will need to send the court fee and three copies of the form along with the original application form.
You will almost certainly be required to attend at least one court hearing in relation to your court order application. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) will be in contact prior to the hearing and a Cafcass family court adviser will usually attend.
The process which allows the court to make a decision in relation to arrangements for children can be lengthy. At the first hearing the judge will want to establish what you and the other parent can agree upon, what you can’t agree upon and if there is any particular risk to the child’s wellbeing.
You and the other parent will be encouraged to reach an agreement at the hearing. If you do agree and the judge feels there is no immediate concern in relation your child’s welfare, the process can end there. A consent order will be drawn up that includes everything you have agreed and you will both be legally bound to stick to the terms of the order.
Parents who can’t agree
If you can’t reach an agreement at the first court hearing. The judge may ask you to attend mediation sessions with the other parent or you might be asked to attend a ‘Separated Parents Information Programme’; a SPIP course provides information and guidance on how to reach an agreement and how to manage conflicts in relation to the arrangements for children (you will not have to attend the same session as the other parent). Ultimately, the course aims to help parents put their children first during a separation or divorce.
The judge may also decide that a Cafcass report is needed. The family court adviser will arrange to speak to your child and a report will be sent to the court. You will get a copy of the report.
You can decide to reach an agreement at any time. Once this happens, the court will stop the process and an appropriate order will be written.
Family Law Guidance and Information
Our family law solicitors have written an invaluable, free to download Guide to Children Matters on Separation.
You can email an enquiry to email@example.com or call 020 8290 7992 for our Bromley team, 01732 457575 for Sevenoaks, 020 7481 6393 for central London or 01483 284567 for our Surrey team.
We offer a fixed fee, no obligation one hour interview so that we may provide you with initial advice and suggest the options for your next course of action.