If you’re jumping into co-parenting after a separation, or exploring what parenting arrangements are available to you if you were to separate, a parenting plan could be the perfect solution. 

During a family separation, clear communication and well-defined agreements are key to making sure that the best interests of your children are met. A parenting plan can be a powerful tool in providing structure, guidance, and consistency for parents navigating the challenges of a separation or divorce. 

Learn about parenting plans, why they are a valuable resource for families in a transition, and how to create one.  

So, what is a Parenting Plan?

A parenting plan is a written agreement entered into between separated parents that outlines the arrangements for the care, upbringing and management of their children’s lives post-separation. This comprehensive document outlines how parents intend to raise and care for their shared children, make joint decisions regarding their children’s education, health, ensuring the children’s wellbeing remains their central focus. Sometimes they can include agreements about financial support for their children.

The key components of a parenting plan cover many different aspects of parenting, parental responsibility and children’s long-term and day-to-day lives. Theycreate an agreed set of decisions and routines for your children’s upbringing.

Here’s some examples of what is usually included in a parenting plan:

  • With whom your children will live (if not equal time)
  • How much time they’ll spend  with the other parent and other significant people (e.g. grandparents)
  • how you’ll share make important long-term decision making regarding your children (e.g. choosing a school, medical decisions)
  • how you’ll contact each other regarding the children (e.g. via the phone, by email, text or a Family App)
  • what you’ll do for special days like birthdays and holidays
  • how you’ll review, change the plan or deal with disagreements about it
  • how you’ll deal with other issues about raising your children

Let’s break down the components and dig into each one: 

Parenting time and schedules
One of the central aspects of a parenting plan involves outlining parenting time and schedules. This establishes the periods during which each child will spend time with, communicate with  and be under the care of each parent.  This usually involves whether or not the children will live equally with each parent and if not, which parent they will live with, the time they will spend with the other parent.  

Decision-making responsibilities
Clear agreement regarding short and long-term decision-making responsibilities are crucial. The parenting plan specifies how major long-term decisions concerning the child’s education, health, and other important aspects of children’s lives will be made jointly in consultation with one another..

Communication and conflict resolution guidelines
Effective communication is vital for co-parenting success. The parenting plan can encourage open lines of communication between parents and where disputes arise, sets forth agreed procedures for resolving such conflicts in a constructive manner.

Special occasions and holidays
Handling special occasions and holidays is another crucial aspect of a parenting plan. The document provides a framework for sharing important milestones and ensuring the child’s participation in special events.

Flexibility and review 
Life is dynamic, and circumstances change. A parenting plan usually includes provisions for flexibility, periodic review and adjustments (if agreed) to accommodate the evolving needs of your children and family.

Why have a parenting plan?

There are numerous advantages to entering into a parenting plan. A parenting plan is a fantastic way to create stability and consistency for children in the midst of a transition, such as a separation or divorce, without being locked into an enforceable agreement that lasts until children turn 18. 

Children thrive on routine and stability. A parenting plan provides much-needed predictability in their lives, whilst providing parents the ability to reach new agreements that adjust to new circumstances in children’s lives with minimal disruption to them.

If you’ve been experiencing conflict with your ex partner, or anticipate conflict down the road, a parenting plan can improve the co-parenting experience for both parents. Its also a good way to test whether each parent will comply with the agreement reached. By clearly defining roles, responsibilities, and expectations, it is hoped a parenting plan reduces potential for conflicts arising from misunderstandings. It encourages a collaborative approach to co-parenting, fostering a positive environment for both parents and children. It avoids having parenting arrangements imposed upon parents by a Court which neither parent is agreeable with.

Life is fluid, and family situations can change unexpectedly. The built-in flexibility in terms of its ability to be reviewed allows parents to adapt to changing circumstances as they occur as children grow older. Adjustments can be made to accommodate changes in the child’s needs, parents’ schedules, and other factors.

One of the primary benefits of putting a comprehensive parenting plan in place is that it can often avoid the need for a parent applying to the Court. When parents can work together to address their children’s needs, it can lead to a smoother separation process and better outcomes for everyone involved.  Both parents will know that they each had input into the arrangements and are more likely to be able to live with the agreement reached.

What is the difference between a parenting order and a parenting plan?

It is important to differentiate between a parenting order and a parenting plan. 

A parenting order is a legally binding written decision made by a court, outlining parenting arrangements and how child-related decisions are to be made, amongst other more specific matters. A parenting plan is a voluntary written agreement made between parents that outlines similar details, but is not legally enforceable unless there is a prior parenting order. 

Family payments and parenting plans

A parenting plan sets out agreed terms for co-parenting, reflecting shared intentions for stability and care, boundaries. It is also a record of the agreed amount of time a child spends in the care of a parent. If you need government financial support for your children, or want to apply for a Child Support Assessment, you can submit the parenting plan to Services Australia. Services Australia will make sure they have the same information about care from both parents and set the fairest payment amount for family payments, such as single-parent payments. 

However, unlike a Parenting Order, a parenting plan is not a legally enforceable document. The best course of action is to seek legal advice during the creation of your parenting plan, so that you can understand its implications and that it meets the requirements under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) to be deemed a parenting plan (eg. signed by both parties, document is called a Parenting Plan etc). Seeking legal advice will also help you ensure your document meets all required criteria.

Parenting plans and child maintenance

Parenting plans can have a significant impact on child maintenance payments. 

When parents create a shared-care arrangement through a parenting plan, it can influence the calculation of child support payments. It is important to note that child support payments by a parent are calculated by the Child Support Agency using various formulas and information, including the amount of time each child spends in the care of each parent. 

If you’re seeking more guidance on how creating a parenting plan might impact child support payments, government benefits or Family Tax benefits, family lawyers are an excellent resource on navigating child-related payments to parents within the context of parenting plans. 

Resources and support

Co-parenting can be hard. When you’re fresh out of separation, the last thing you need is a difficult parenting situation. 

Seeking support through available government resources and family support services can be an important way to help navigate your new family dynamic and the complexities of co-parenting. 

Mediation and family lawyer services can offer assistance in creating effective parenting plans. Parenting education programs and courses provide valuable insights for parents seeking to enhance their co-parenting skills.

If you’re considering a separation, or in the midst of a separation or divorce, remember that a well-crafted parenting plan can be a powerful tool in your arsenal to facilitate effective communication, minimise conflicts, and prioritise the wellbeing of your children.