It is important you and your former spouse work together as a team to listen to each other, consider each other’s opinions and ultimately ensure your child’s wellbeing. The way child custody arrangements are set up will depend on your circumstances. If you need help working out which option might be right for you and your family, talk to one of our family solicitors.
1. Contact arrangements
The first and easiest option is for you and your former spouse to mutually agree on child custody arrangements, bearing in mind what will be in the best interest of the child.
In most situations, parents will either agree on who their child will live with or will opt for joint residency. In the case of the later, there is recognition that all legal rights and responsibilities for the child will be equally divided. However, while the physical care of the child will be equally divided under joint residency, one parent must still be recognised as the primary carer. The primary concern is for children to have a safe and happy home, and ideally contact with both parents.
Sometimes there may be a disagreement about custody arrangements, either directly from a child’s parent or from other adults influential in a child’s life, such as from grandparents or step-parents. When this happens, it is best to try and work through the disagreement amongst all concerned parties. If an agreement can’t be reached, you may consider mediation.
If you want to make your mutual agreement legally binding, use a solicitor. Our specialist family law team can help you put a set agreement in writing that must be abided by all parties[CH1] . Refusal to allow a parent to have direct (i.e. face-to-face) or indirect (i.e. telephone, email, letters or gifts) contact with a child may result in an application to the court. To avoid this stressful process, a written agreement can set out the steps each parent can take to ensure contact arrangements are kept before seeking a court-ordered remedy.
2. Family mediation
When a mutual agreement cannot be reached by everyone who has parental responsibility for a child, family mediation may be considered as a way of resolving differences outside of court. This option provides parents the opportunity to be heard in a safe environment with the support of an independent and trained mediator. Accredited mediators must follow transparent professional standards that allows for voluntary and confidential participation in order to reach a joint agreement. A mediator will help parents come up with a written agreement that details a child’s living arrangements, visitation schedule and a shared parenting plan.
3. Child Arrangement Orders
Child Arrangement Orders issued through the courts should only be considered where mutual contact arrangement discussions and family mediation have failed. In fact, it is necessary to first prove attempts have been made to come to an agreement by other means first.
A Child Arrangement Order (formerly Contact Order) is a legal order that both parents must comply with. It details:
- where a child will live and with whom;
- who the child can see; and
- when and how long visits will be.
Before seeking a Child Arrangement Order, parents should seek legal advice. Our family law team can help you process a Child Arrangement Order application, ensure all the necessary steps have been taken before an order is sought, and support you through the court process. It is important to remember that the court will consider what is in the best interests of the child, not the parents.
Changing custody arrangements
As your lives move forward, you may need to revisit child custody arrangements in order to better reflect current circumstances. Like you would have done when you first agreement on child custody, consider what communication styles best suit everyone and try to come to a decision together in the first instance. If you are not able to mutually agree on changes, we can help advise you on your options.
Taking a child on holiday
There is no legal requirement for a parent to gain the permission of the other person with parental responsibility in order to take your under 16 year old child on holiday with them anywhere within the United Kingdom. This domestic travel is allowed, so long as it is not in violation of an existing Contact Order, Child Arrangement Order or Prohibited Steps Order. If the planned leave will interfere with visitation periods, however, you will need to seek consent from the parent whose visits the holiday will interfere with. Where contact arrangements have been approved and enforced by a court, the court will need to give permission for any travel arrangements – both domestic and international.
If the child is under 16 years of age and you wish to holiday outside of England or Wales, you will generally need the consent of all those with parental responsibility. However, there are some exceptions. For example, if the child lives with you under a Child Arrangements Order or Residence Order, you will not require the other parent’s permission to travel internationally if you are going for 28 days or less. Likewise, if you hold a Special Guardianship, you will not need the parents’ consent to travel outside England or Wales if you are going for three months or less. If a Prohibited Steps Order is in place, you will not be able to take your child out of your jurisdiction.
The law is not clear as to whether positive consent is needed, or whether consent will be assumed in the absence of objection. In any case, written consent is advised in the form of a signed letter to avoid any disagreements.
Rules to live by – Dos and Don’ts
Separation can be an emotional rollercoaster, particularly when children are involved. Here are some tips to bear in mind when prioritising your child throughout a relationship breakdown.
- Do behave in front of your children how you would like them to behave in front of others.
- Do seek professional help if you are struggling emotionally.
- Do reassure them. They may be worried about having to change schools or move away from their friends, so talk to them about what they might be feeling in an age-appropriate way.
- Do make time to listen to them.
- Do think about things from your child's perspective.
- Don't involve your children in grown up matters.
- Don't argue in front of the children.
- Don't rely on your children for emotional support; you are there to look after them, not the other way around.
- Don't blame the other parent. Remember that children only have one mother and one father, and they want that person to be special and someone to look up to.
- Don't make your child the messenger; if you have something to say to your ex-partner then deliver the message yourself.
- Don't grill your child after spending time with the other parent; just ask general questions such as whether they had a good time.
- Don't expect your children to take sides; let them love both parents.