Australia: What Is a parenting plan for separated couples?

A parenting plan is a written, signed and dated agreement between two former spouses regarding the care, welfare and development of their child.

Parenting plans are one of the options for separated couples when they agree on parenting arrangements.

They are different from consent orders and parenting orders as parenting plans are not enforceable by law.

They are made free from any threat, coercion or duress.

Why Make A Parenting Plan?

Parenting plans are useful documents for separated couples who have agreed on the parenting and custody arrangements they want for their child or children.

Parenting plans give both parents a practical idea of how they will continue to look after their child following the separation from their spouse.

The plan can be changed at any time as long as both parents agree on the change. Because children change and family situations change, a parenting plan can be adapted and updated as time passes.

This is a significant advantage: parents tailor their parenting plans to their unique situation, keeping all the decisions about parenting arrangements in their own hands.

It is usually far less complicated, less expensive and less stressful to create a parenting plan than to go to court.

However, parenting plans can be made legally binding by turning them into consent orders.

Consent orders are official court orders made after an agreement between the parties outside of court. This is different from other parenting orders, which are made by the court after a hearing to resolve a dispute.

Although parenting plans are not enforceable by law, they can be used in any future court hearings to show how the parents cared for their children and how well they followed the parenting plan. They may be influential in the outcome of any future proceedings.

It is important to evaluate how well both former spouses communicate with each other and how they resolve disputes, as these are crucial elements to making a parenting plan work.

How Do You Write A Parenting Plan?

A parenting plan should be as concise and practical as possible.

There is no compulsory format for a parenting plan.

The plan can cover any aspect of the care, welfare and development of the child. It does not need to cover every possible aspect, only the parts of the child's and parents' daily lives that need to be agreed upon following the separation.

It should take into account how reasonably practical the proposed arrangement is. This means that it is important to consider factors like:

  • What the parents' hours of work are
  • How far apart the parents live from each other
  • What the child's schedule is like (e.g. school, extra-curricular activities)
  • Where the child's school is
  • Transport arrangements
  • Any special needs the child may have
  • The impact the parenting arrangement will have on the child personally and on their daily routine

The child's age and their own views on possible parenting arrangements should also be considered.

What Is Included In A Parenting Plan?  

Not all of the following points will be relevant to every separated couple making a parenting plan. However, a parenting plan can cover any or all of the following items:

  • Who the child will live with
  • How and when the child will spend time with each parent
  • How the parents will share parental responsibility
  • How the parents will consult with each other to make decisions concerning the child
  • Arrangements for holidays and special days, such as birthdays
  • How the child will communicate with their parents when not spending time with them (e.g. phone calls, text messages)
  • How much each parent will be involved in school activities
  • How everyday expenses will be covered
  • How other expenses will be managed
  • The child's cultural or religious needs

A parenting plan does not need to focus solely on the parents of the child; it may also set out details for how the child spends time with other family members, for example, grandparents, aunts, uncles and adult siblings.

Step-parents can have their role and responsibilities included in the parenting plan as well.

Some parents may find it useful to go into detail about certain issues that may come up, such as how the child's homework will be managed, who will pay for which regular expenses and who will accompany the child to various activities.

There is no correct or incorrect way to formulate a parenting plan. It can be written and adapted as each family sees fit.

Parenting Plans And The Law

The Family Law Act 1975 sets out the details of parenting plans in Sections 63C, 64D and 70NBB.

For a parenting plan to exist under the Family Law Act 1975, it must be in writing, signed and dated by both parents, and made free from threat, duress or coercion.

Any parenting order made after 1 July 2006 can be altered by the creation of a parenting plan if both parents agree to the change. Therefore, an action that would otherwise have breached a court order may not be a contravention because of the subsequent parenting plan.

This saves the parents from having to go back to court to change or update their parenting orders or consent orders.            

Parenting Plans And Child Support

Child support, or child maintenance, can be included in a parenting plan.

However, there are some extra considerations as child support is usually managed by the Department of Human Services (DHS).

If both parents agree on who will pay an agreed sum in child support to whom, they can self-manage their child support without the involvement of DHS. It may be useful to include this in the parenting plan.

If the parents go through DHS to arrange their child support, DHS will likely require a copy of the parenting plan. This is so they know how much care each parent is providing to the child, which may then affect the child support assessment.

Parenting plans are very useful documents for parents who can agree on how they will divide parental care and responsibility after separation.  

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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