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:

  • how you will decide on things like your children's education and health
  • where the children will live and how much time they will spend with each of you
  • how you will settle any difference of opinion on parenting issues that comes 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. Parenting arrangements should, above all else, protect and support your children’s physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being.

Finding the best way to do this isn’t always easy, and there may be many factors to think about. Every child and family is different, so it's important to think about what will work best in your situation. Try to look at this through your children's eyes.

Before you start to make decisions about parenting arrangements, it is important that you try to understand your children’s thoughts and feelings about what is happening. This will help you decide on what is best for them. It can also help your children understand what is going on and let them know that you are thinking about their needs. Giving your children a voice now can make things easier for everyone down the line.

More information about how to consider your children’s views when making decisions about parenting can be found in Section 5, under “Including your children's perspective.”

The Divorce Act gives you guidance on what to consider as you decide on parenting arrangements:

  • your children’s needs, given their age and stage of development. This includes:
    • their need for stability
    • any special needs your children may have, such as medical needs, developmental issues, mental health challenges, or learning difficulties
  • the nature and strength of your children's relationship with each parent, siblings, grandparents, and other important people in their lives
  • each parent’s willingness to support the children’s relationship with the other parent
  • the care arrangements before the separation and future plans for care of the children
  • your children's views and preferences
  • each parent’s ability and willingness to care for the children
  • each parent’s ability to communicate and cooperate with the other parent about parenting issues relating to your children's cultural, linguistic, religious and spiritual upbringing and heritage, including Indigenous upbringing and heritage

Family violence

The Divorce Act prioritizes the safety, security and well-being of the child above all other factors.

The Act specifically highlights that family violence against a child or another parent is relevant to children’s best interests. For example, the court must consider:

  • if a person who has been violent towards family members can adequately care for and meet the needs of the children
  • whether the parents can cooperate on parenting issues

Another factor that the Act points to is whether there are any other civil or criminal orders or legal cases that are related to the safety, security and well-being of your children. For example, this could include a past criminal conviction for an assault against a family member or a child protection order involving someone in your family.

Other factors to consider

The factors listed in the Divorce Act are not the only factors for you to think about.  

Every family and child is unique. There may be other factors to think about when trying to decide what parenting arrangements are best for your children.

For example, in some situations, concerns about problematic substance use or serious mental health issues might affect your decision.

In other cases, a child may have special talents that you need to consider.

For more information on children’s needs, see the online resource “How children react at different ages and stages” and consult the Department of Justice Canada’s family law webpages. This information may help you when you think about which parenting arrangements are 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 understand your children's needs and develop a parenting arrangement that meets those needs.

Decision-Making responsibility

A key part of a parenting arrangement is decision-making responsibility.

Decision-making responsibility means the responsibility for making important decisions about the children’s well-being. This includes decisions about the children's:

  • health care
  • education
  • culture, language, religion or spirituality
  • significant extra-curricular activities

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

  • Joint decision-making responsibility: You and the other parent consult each other and make the decisions together.
  • Sole decision-making responsibility: One parent makes the decisions.
  • Divided (parallel) decision-making responsibility: You are responsible for some decisions (for example, on health and religion), and the other parent is responsible for other decisions (for example, on 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 responsibility may be a good option for you.

On the other hand, if you and the other parent aren’t able to get along or if there is a power imbalance because of abuse, 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, you might disagree 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 responsibility generally isn't appropriate in situations where there are ongoing safety concerns due to violence between parents. Arrangements that require regular contact or communication between parents may lead to opportunities for further family violence. For more information, please see Section 6: Special issues.

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

When developing parenting arrangements, it is a good idea to think about specific issues that may be sensitive or that you and the other parent may not agree on. These might include what should happen if one of you wants to introduce a new partner to your children, whether and how your children should be allowed to use social media, and whether and how you will share images of your children on social media. While you and the other parent don’t need to sort out everything in advance, you should think about whether now would be a good time to discuss how decisions will be made on certain sensitive issues, which might help avoid conflict in the future.

If you're not making parenting arrangements under the Divorce Act, you may want to visit your provincial or territorial government website for information about family law in your area.

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.

Terminology under the Divorce Act

As of March 1, 2021, the Divorce Act no longer uses the terms “custody” or “access.” In this section, you will find a list of terms to keep in mind when developing your parenting arrangements.

Parenting time

Parenting time refers to the time that children spend in the care of one of their parents, whether or not the child is physically with the parent (for example, it includes times when children are in school). Parenting time may be set out in a schedule. If you are a parent who had “access” under the Divorce Act, you now have “parenting time.”

Unless the court orders otherwise, a parent with parenting time has the right to ask for, and must be given, information about the health, education and welfare of the children from the other parent or a third party (for example, the school, a doctor).

Decision-making responsibility

Decision-making responsibility is the responsibility to make important decisions about a child’s well-being, including decisions about health, education, culture, religion, and significant extracurricular activities. The Divorce Act says that a parent who has “custody” under an old custody order now has “decision-making responsibility.”

If one parent is responsible for making all the decisions about a child they have sole decision-making responsibility. If both parents have decision-making responsibilities, they have joint decision-making responsibility.

Parenting order

A parenting order is an order made by a court that sets out important details about parenting arrangements, such as the time the children will spend with each parent, each parent’s decision-making responsibilities, and how the children will communicate with one parent when spending time with the other parent.

Parenting plan

A parenting plan describes how parents not living together will care for and make important decisions about their children in both homes. You can agree to any type of parenting arrangement, but you should focus on what is in the best interests of your children.

Contact

Contact is court-ordered time that a person who is special to a child but is not their parent—for example a grandparent—spends with that child. A court will issue a contact order based on whether it is in the child’s best interests.

Shared parenting time

Shared parenting time refers to situations where a child spends at least 40 percent of the time with each parent. This term is normally used in the child support context. Shared parenting time was formerly referred to as shared custody.

Split parenting time

Split parenting time refers to situations involving more than one child where each parent has the majority of parenting time—over 60 percent—with at least one of the children. This term is normally used in the child support context. Split parenting time was formerly referred to as split custody.

Majority of parenting time

Majority of parenting time refers to situations where a child spends more than 60 percent of the time with one parent. This term is normally used in the child support context. Majority of parenting time was formerly referred to as sole custody.

Old Divorce Act terminology

Custody

Custody is a legal term previously used in the Divorce Act that is still used in some provinces and territories. It sometimes refers to the authority that one or both parents have to make significant decisions about their child. It is also sometimes used to describe both the parenting time schedule and how decisions about the child will be made. There are different types of custody, including sole custody and joint custody.

Sole custody means that one parent makes the major decisions about issues such as the child's education, religion and health care. Generally, the child would live primarily with this parent. This parent would now have sole decision-making responsibility and the majority of parenting time.

Joint custody under the Divorce Act means that both parents make major decisions about the child together. Parents can have joint custody even when the child primarily lives with one of them. Parents with joint custody now have joint decision-making responsibility as well as parenting time.

Access

Access is a legal term previously used in the Divorce Act to refer to the time a parent or other person spends with a child, usually not the parent with whom the child primarily lives. If you are a parent who had “access” under the Divorce Act, you now have parenting time.

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 "guardianship," "custody," "access" or "parental authority" may be used.

Parenting time

Another key part of your parenting arrangement is when the children will be with each parent. Parenting time should be allocated based on what is in the children’s best interests. You can set your parenting time out in a schedule.

The parenting time 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 birthdays, Mother's Day and Father's Day, and religious and statutory holidays.

It's important to be practical and realistic when agreeing to a schedule for parenting time. You and the other parent may want to think about your individual schedules, 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 between parents can be easier for children 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 them up. This can help to avoid disruption in the child’s schedule.

Remember

The focus should be on what's best for your children, not on what's most convenient for you. 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. However, each family is unique and there is no magic formula that determines the best schedule.

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. The online resource “How children react at different ages and stages” has information on children's ages and stages of development and on some of the issues that your children may be dealing with.

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 each other
  • can be flexible with the parenting time schedule

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

In some cases, particularly where there are ongoing safety issues or concerns, it may be best for the children to have limited or supervised parenting time with one parent or to have a third person supervise exchanges when a parent picks up or drops off the child.

It may sometimes be necessary to be flexible and realistic about the schedule that you have agreed to. For example, you may need to reschedule 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 time 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 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 a parenting arrangement if there is a good reason to do so and if the change is in the best interests of the children.

Time with special people who are not the child’s parents

It's also possible for a parenting time schedule to include other people who are important in the children's life. For example, if the children regularly spend time with their grandparents, you may want to include this in the schedule.

Usually, people who are special to the child, such as grandparents or other close relatives, will see the child during one of the parents’ parenting time. Parents are generally able to make room in a schedule to accommodate time with special people like grandparents.

Sometimes, though, this is not possible. The Divorce Act allows people such as grandparents to apply for a contact order to have time reserved to spend with the child. The court will only make a contact order if it is in the best interests of the child.

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 responsibility.

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 family 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 of money one parent pays to the other to support their child financially.

What are the Federal Child Support Guidelines?

The Federal Child Support 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.

The Federal Child Support Tables set out basic child support amounts that depend on your income, the number of children you have with the other parent, and the province or territory where you live.

You can consult those tables to get an idea of the approximate amount of child support that will be required. Knowing in advance what your child support amount will likely be may make things easier for you and the other parent to come to an agreement.

Remember

You also have a duty under the Divorce Act to provide complete, accurate and up-to-date financial information in order to calculate child support.

The Federal Child Support Guidelines: Step-by-Step guide gives detailed information on how to calculate child support. The Department of Justice Canada’s online Child Support Table Look-up tool can also help parents find the base amount of child support they will have to pay.

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 Child Support Guidelines, many criteria are used to determine the amount of child support. You should note that:

  • If a child spends more than 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 won’t change this.
  • If the parents have a "shared parenting time" arrangement—that is, where the child spends at least 40% of the time with each parent —one parent will likely still pay child support. There are a number of factors that a court will consider in this type of situation, such as the increased costs to parents related to a shared parenting time arrangement.
Child and family benefits

When parents separate or divorce, child and family benefits may be affected, depending on the parenting time 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. Even if your court order indicates one parent is to get a certain credit or benefit, the Income Tax Act rules may not allow this.

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 Benefit and the Goods and Services Tax/Harmonized Sales Tax Credit. To find out more about the benefit and credit programs administered by the CRA, visit the Child and family benefits webpage, or call the CRA’s Benefit enquiries line at 1-800-387-1193.


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