Philippa and Eri’s article was originally published in EPrivateClient, 14 June 2022, and can be found here.
Top tips for co-parents on agreeing arrangements for children
As those advising private clients will know, separation and divorce can be a challenging time, posing a host of legal and financial challenges, as well as the emotional fallout. Clients with children face the additional complexity of agreeing and implementing practical arrangements following the family’s transition to two households. This can be challenging, but parents are likely to find the process smoother by following some basic principles.
- Prioritise the children’s needs
The children’s interests should always be at the heart of the arrangements, and a helpful way for parents to ensure that they are on the right track is to try to see things from the children’s perspective. That doesn’t mean parents should ask their children what they want to happen – children should never be made to feel like they need to choose between their parents, or that the responsibility is on them to decide what happens. Rather, it means parents communicating with their children in an age-appropriate way about what is happening and then factoring their needs and wishes into parental decision-making. If possible and appropriate (so not in cases of abusive relationships), parents should try to have conversations with their children together. Ensuring a joint approach is taken can be reassuring for the children and prevents either parent from being presented as blameworthy. Parents should understand that the children will need time and space to express their emotions and concerns.
- The arrangements must be practical
The arrangements for the children should be practical – this will make life easier for the parents and, most importantly, the children. Parents should be encouraged to think through how the proposed arrangements will work on a day-to-day basis and make sure they are confident they will run smoothly. The arrangements should accommodate the children’s routines and activities, minimising changes to other aspects of their lives. It can help for parents to keep an open mind and be willing to consider a variety of options. Where possible, it can be beneficial for parents to agree broadly similar ground rules (for example, in relation to bedtimes and screen time) so that the children experience continuity and familiarity in the different households.
Beyond the day-to-day arrangements, it is sensible for parents to think ahead to significant occasions – Mother’s and Father’s Days, birthdays, religious holidays and other specific events their family may celebrate. By considering in advance how these special days should be spent, parents can avoid the stress of trying to work things out at the last minute.
- Record the agreement and keep communicating
Once there is an agreement, we recommend that parents (or their advisors) confirm it in writing. This should avoid any misunderstandings and can be a helpful aide memoire. It is not generally necessary to formalise the agreement in a court order, but many parents create a ‘Parenting Plan’, taking advantage of the templates available which can help ensure everything has been covered.
Once the agreement is in place, it is important for parents to maintain good communications to ensure it works well. One way to achieve this is to use a specialist app to keep track of arrangements. Any conflict or disagreement should be kept away from the children, and parents will find that backing each other up reduces the risk of the children seeking to play them off against each other.
- Support in reaching an agreement
If a separating couple find that discussing arrangements with each other is tricky, or if they get stuck, we recommend that they consider using a mediator, family consultant or family therapist. Sometimes, the involvement of a neutral third party with experience supporting families can help parents find a way through. Depending on the age of the children, they can also be part of the process by sharing their thoughts with the third party if their parents agree, and in the right circumstances, this can be a really helpful way to focus on what the children need.
Ultimately, if it is not possible for parents to reach an agreement as to the arrangements for their children, then a judge or arbitrator can be asked to consider the position and determine what is in the best interests of the children. This can, however, be a stressful process, and following these tips and taking advantage of external support will help many parents avoid the need to involve the courts.