There are three major things to sort out.
- Where the children will live.
- When and how you will ensure they have plenty of time with both parents.
- How you will continue to pay for all the things they need.
There are no set answers to these questions. You have to decide between you what will be best for your children and for you both.
Where the children will live and how you will ensure they have plenty of time with both parents
Sometimes where the children will live and with who is obvious to you both, but often this is a really hard decision. The most important thing is for you both to be clear that you are making the decision based on what is right for your children at this point in their lives, rather than trying to make things fair between the two of you.
You may be thinking of an arrangement where the children live part of the week with one of you and the rest of the week with the other. This is often called “shared care” and it can be very successful. Be aware though that if you are thinking that it is only ‘fair’ if your children live half of the week with each of you, you may accidentally be putting your needs ahead of theirs.
Shared care arrangements seem to be most successful where parents live near each other, both have enough space at home and time (or money) to spend on childcare, and when they can be co-operative and communicate well on day to day issues (for example, whether your child’s PE kit/French textbook etc is in the right home when needed). It is also important to have clear agreements about who is responsible for what (for example, who will be responsible for healthcare appointments, making sure their shoes still fit, etc).
For other families, it may be best for the children to live with one parent most or all of the time, and see their other parent regularly. For most children and young people regularity and reliability is very important.
You may need to think about:
- how much stability your children need at their age and with their personalities,
- who will have the most time for parenting (and on what days),
- where there is enough space,
- how they would get to and from school, their friends’ houses, etc.
- If you have more than one child, will it be important to them that they both do the same thing (for example, both go to stay with Dad on a Sunday night), or would they enjoy the opportunity to get one of you to themselves sometimes.
Talking to the children about arrangements
- Make it clear to your children that you want to help them to keep a loving and close relationship with both of you and they will never be asked to choose between you.
- Make it clear that you are the adults and you will make the decisions, but that you want their help to think about how things would feel for them.
- Listen to any suggestions they make. Even if you can immediately think of 10 reasons why it's a bad idea, resist the impulse to say so. Instead let them see you are giving it some serious thought.
If your children are a bit older, it is usually a good idea to discuss the options with them. Don’t ask them to choose where they live though - that is likely to make them feel like they have to choose between you. Making a decision that is genuinely in their best interests takes a great deal of maturity - it’s hard enough for the adults.
It’s a very good idea to agree what the rules are and make sure they are the same at each house. For example, for teenagers you might agree when bedtime is, how late they can stay out with their friends, how long can they spend on the computer, will homework be checked, how much pocket money will they get (and who will give it to them). This prevents them from playing you off against each other, and means you don’t have to worry that it’s more fun with their other parent.
Bear in mind whatever arrangements you come to are unlikely to last forever. Most people need to reorganise things a few times as the children get older to accommodate their social lives or new clubs they want to join. Or there may be changes for you the adults, perhaps because of a new job or changes to your home life.
If your child spends more time with the other parent, it doesn’t mean you are less of a parent or have less of a say in important decisions about them. This is because most parents have something called ‘Parental Responsibility’. This is a legal term for all the rights and duties a parent has towards a child. It means you should be consulted about important things like which school they should go to, or decisions concerning your child’s health. (It does not give either parent the right to interfere unreasonably or unnecessarily in care arrangements put in place by one parent.)
Do I have Parental Responsibility?
All mums have Parental Responsibility. All dads who are married to the mum or have been mentioned on a birth certificate issued after 1st December 2003 have Parental Responsibility. If you have adopted your child or have a residence order, you have Parental Responsibility. If you are a Second female parent and your child was conceived on or after 6th April 2009 and you were on the birth certificate you will have Parental Responsibility. Or, you have Parental Responsibility if you have formed a Civil Partnership with the child’s biological mother.
If you don’t have automatic Parental Responsibility, you can get it by making (and signing) a parental responsibility agreement or by applying to the court for an order. See Parental Responsibility.
The government has created a guide called Putting your children first which aims to help separating parents make arrangements about their children.