Making plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce

Section 4: What is the best parenting arrangement for my child?

When you decide to separate or divorce, you will need to make parenting arrangements for your children. This is easiest when you and the other parent have a co-parenting relationship where you focus on your children. For more information on co-parenting relationships, see Section 3: Parenting After Separation—Focusing on Your Children.

When making parenting arrangements, there are three main types of decisions that you'll need to make:

  1. How will you decide on things like your children's education, health and religion?
  2. Where will the children live and how much time will they spend with each of you?
  3. How will you settle any parenting issues that come up in the future?

Best interests of the child

When you are deciding on parenting arrangements, it's important to focus on the best interests of your children. While there is no precise definition of the "best interests of the child", one way to think about it is to consider what parenting arrangement will best encourage your children's development, happiness and success. This isn't an easy question to answer, as it will depend on many factors. Every child and family is different and so it's important to think about what will work best in your situation. Try to look at this through your child's eyes.

In deciding on a parenting arrangement, you'll want to consider issues like:

  • the age and stage of development of your children (please see Appendix A: How Children React at Different Ages and Stages).
  • any special needs your children may have
  • your children's relationship with each parent
  • your children's relationship with siblings, grandparents and other extended family
  • care arrangements before the separation
  • your children's wishes
  • each parent's parenting abilities
  • the ability of you and the other parent to cooperate and communicate about parenting issues
  • your children's cultural, linguistic and religious upbringing.

It's also important to consider specific issues that may affect your children's safety and either parent's parenting abilities, like:

Appendix A provides information about children's developmental stages, which can help you when you think about which parenting arrangement is best for your children. You may also find it helpful to speak to a mental health professional such as a social worker or psychologist to help you to understand your children's needs and to help you develop a parenting arrangement that meets those needs.

Decision-Making

A key part of a parenting arrangement is who will make important decisions about the children. These decisions include those about the children's:

  • health care
  • religion or spirituality
  • education

You can make important decisions in a number of different ways.

Joint decision-making
you and the other parent consult each other and make the decisions together
Sole decision-making
you or the other parent makes the decision on your own
Divided (parallel) decision-making
you're responsible for some decisions (for example, health and religion) and the other parent is responsible for other decisions (for example, education)

You should carefully consider which approach is appropriate in your circumstances, in light of your children's best interests. If you and the other parent are able to cooperate well with each other on parenting issues, joint decision-making may be a good option for you.

On the other hand, if you and the other parent are not able to get along, having to make decisions together or divided decision-making may expose your children to conflict. For example, if one of you is responsible for health decisions and the other is responsible for decisions about education, a disagreement could arise about whether a particularly demanding school program will affect the children's health. It's important to consider how you would resolve these types of disagreements.

Caution:

You must think about safety when you develop parenting arrangements. Joint decision-making generally isn't appropriate in situations where there are ongoing safety concerns due to spousal violence, since it can provide an opportunity for continued control of one parent by the other. For more information, please see Section 6: Special Issues.

You may also want to address other issues such as changing where the children live, vacations outside of the province or country, applying for passports, holding passports and other important documents, and signing consent letters for travel.

If you're not making a parenting arrangement under the Divorce Act, you will want to visit your provincial or territorial family law website for information about the laws of your province or territory.

For example, if you live in the province of Québec, parents share parental authority, which includes important decisions about the children like health care, education and religion. The parents may decide between them how they will exercise that parental authority.

Terms used under the Divorce Act and the Federal Child Support Guidelines

Custody
is the legal term in the Divorce Act which refers to both the parenting schedule for a child, and how decisions about the child will be made. When parents divorce, there are different types of custody.
Sole custody
means that one parent makes the major decisions about matters such as the child's education, religion and health care. Generally, the child will live primarily with this person.
Joint custody
means that both parents have legal custody of the child and make major decisions about the child together.
Shared custody
refers to situations where a child lives at least 40 percent of the time with each parent. This is normally used in the child support context.
Split custody

refers to situations where one or more children live with each parent more than 60% of the time. This term is normally used in the child support context.

A variety of living arrangements are possible for the child when the parents have joint custody. For example, the child may live mostly with one parent, while both parents make important decisions jointly.

It is also possible for the parents to have both joint and shared custody of a child. In this situation, the parents would jointly make important decisions about the child, and the child would spend at least 40 percent of the time with each parent.

Access
When one parent has sole custody, the other parent normally has access. A parent with an order for access under the Divorce Act is entitled to spend time with the child. Unless the court orders otherwise, a parent with access is also entitled to ask for and be given information about the health, education and welfare of the child.
Provincial and Territorial Legislation
In many cases, parenting issues are decided under provincial or territorial legislation. This will happen for example, where parents are separating but not divorcing or were never married. Depending on the province or territory, terminology such as "parenting orders," "contact orders," "parental responsibility," "guardianship," "custody" or "access" or "parental authority" may be used.
Other Terms Can be Used

Although the Divorce Act and provincial and territorial legislation may use certain terms, such as "custody" and "access," it is not necessary to use these terms in a parenting plan, if you and the other parent do not wish to. Other words or descriptions can also be used to set out parenting roles and responsibilities.

If you do decide to use different words, it is important to be as clear as possible to avoid confusion.

The parenting schedule

Another key part of your parenting arrangement is when the children will be with each parent. You may have heard different terms used to refer to this, like a residential schedule, parenting time or parenting schedule. This guide uses the words parenting schedule.

The parenting schedule should be as clear as possible about the time that the children will generally spend with each parent. It can also include holidays and special occasions such as Mother's Day and Father's Day.

It's important to be practical and realistic when agreeing to a parenting schedule. For example, you and the other parent should think about issues like your work and other commitments. You should also think about what kind of transportation you will need to spend time with the children. For example, if one parent doesn't have a car, you'll have to think about things like the availability of public transportation, particularly if you and the other parent don't live near each other.

Transitions for children can be easier if they take place at a natural point in their schedule. For example, one parent can drop the children off at daycare, school or swimming lessons and the other parent can pick the children up.

The focus should be on what's best for your children, not necessarily what's most convenient for you. When arriving at a parenting schedule, you and the other parent should take into account the children's activities and social commitments.

It's generally best for children if they have an ongoing and meaningful relationship with both parents, and they know that each parent supports the relationship with the other parent. But, there is no "magic formula," that determines the best schedule. The best parenting schedule in your situation should be what is best for your children.

Appendix A talks about children's ages and stages and some of the issues that your children may be dealing with at their ages. Children's needs change at different ages. For example, from a developmental perspective, a schedule that works well for a teenager will likely not be appropriate for an infant or toddler.

In some situations, it will be best for the children to live primarily with one parent, but frequently spend time with the other parent. In others, it will be best for children to live roughly equal amounts of time with both parents. This type of arrangement works best when children are a bit older and both parents

  • live close to one another
  • respect each other's ability to parent
  • are able to cooperate with one another and
  • can be flexible with the parenting schedule

The parents' ability to maintain a co-parenting relationship is important to making this type of arrangement work.

In some cases, particularly where there are ongoing safety issues, it may be best for the children to have limited or supervised contact with one parent.

It's also possible to include other important people in the children's life in the parenting schedule. For example, if the children regularly spend time with their grandparents, you may want to include this in the schedule. As with all decisions, this depends on the children's best interests.

It may sometimes be necessary to be flexible and realistic with the schedule that you have agreed to. For example, you may need to re-schedule a child's time with Mom if there is an out-of-town sports tournament during Mom's time with a child but Dad is responsible for transportation to and from the activity. Bad weather or other circumstances may also disrupt the schedule from time to time. This is to be expected.

Finally, parents sometimes want to "try out" a parenting schedule for a few months to see how it works for their children. They agree to discuss how the schedule is working after a while, and to make any changes as needed. This can work well in many cases. But, if there are problems between the parents and they end up in court, the judge may not want to change a schedule that they find is working to the children's benefit. The courts are concerned about stability for children and will only change parenting arrangements if there is a good reason and it's in the best interests of the children.

Resolving future parenting issues

When you make a parenting arrangement, it's also important to think about how you and the other parent will work out any future disagreements about parenting. This is particularly important when you and the other parent agree to joint decision-making.

It's usually best if you can work out disagreements without going to court. For example, you may want to agree to speak with a mediator to try to resolve issues before going to court. For more information about different types of dispute resolution, see Section 5: Options for Developing a Parenting Arrangement.

Child support

Once you and the other parent agree on the parenting arrangement that is best for your child, you will need to calculate child support. Child support is the amount one parent pays to another for the financial support of a child.

What are the Federal Child Support Guidelines?

The Federal Child Support Guidelines (Federal Guidelines) are regulations made under the Divorce Act. They set out some rules and tables (the Federal Child Support Tables) to show how much child support parents should pay when they divorce. The guidelines are the law. They can tell you how much support a judge would likely order.

If you know in advance what your child support amount will likely be, it may be easier for you and the other parent to agree.

Do parenting arrangements affect child support?

Sometimes people get confused about how their parenting arrangement will affect the amount of child support they pay. It is important to remember that under the Federal Guidelines many criteria are used to determine the amount of child support. You should note that:

  • If a child lives at least 60% of the time with one parent, the other parent will generally pay child support. A parenting arrangement that requires the parents to make major decisions jointly—for example "joint custody"—will not change this.
  • If the parents have a "shared custody" arrangement, that is—the child lives with each parent at least 40% of the time—one parent will likely still pay child support. There are a number of factors that a court will consider in this type of situation.

For more information on child support

The Federal Child Support Guidelines: Step-by-Step has detailed information on how to calculate child support. The Directory of Resources at the end of this document also lists other places where you can find help. It also lists provincial and territorial sites that have information about child support rules and the family justice system across Canada.

Child and Family Benefits

When parents separate or divorce, child and family benefits may be affected, depending on the parenting schedule. It's important to know that federal child benefits and credits are based on the Income Tax Act, and not on the rules of family law. Court orders or written agreements sometimes contradict the provisions of the Income Tax Act, or reflect circumstances that have changed.

If you separate or divorce, you need to understand how this may affect your child and family benefits. When you know the rules, you are less likely to experience frustration and financial hardship during an already difficult period.

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) administers tax matters and child and family benefits, like the Canada Child Tax Benefit, the Universal Child Care Benefit, and the Goods and Services Tax/Harmonized Sales Tax Credit. To find out more about the benefit and credit programs the CRA administers, visit the Child and Family Benefits web page, or call 1-800-387-1193.

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