A separation is a transformative moment for both parents and their children, but a well-drafted parenting plan can set the whole family up for success in this new phase of their lives.
Everybody involved needs predictability, so the more detailed you can make your agreement, the better.
To get you started, here are seven of the most important issues you’ll need to consider when putting together your parenting plan.
Traditionally, many parents would have conflated the child’s residence with “custody,” but in the legal profession, we have moved away from unhelpful terms like these that suggest ownership over a child and encourage conflict between parents.
Parents who equally share decision-making responsibility over their children will not necessarily have an equal parenting-time schedule, but the parenting time arrangement is an important starting point because many other issues — including the amount of child support payable — flow from the child’s residence schedule.
Even if parents have agreed to share parenting time equally, there are any number of combinations to consider. For example, parents of older children often operate on a simple week-on, week-off basis throughout the year.
However, this kind of alternating schedule is less suitable for younger children, and many parents are more comfortable with a bi-weekly 2-5-2-5 or 3-4-3-4 arrangement.
Holidays are a special time of the year for many people, which is why they tend to occupy a disproportionate amount of space in a parenting plan.
The children’s whereabouts in the periods around Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year are commonly a source of debate among separating parents, but a family’s specific cultural and religious practices will often dictate other key dates that need to be worked out.
In addition, many parenting plans include provisions dealing with the birthdays of parents and children, as well as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
It can be tricky to ensure a balance is reached across the year, especially when one or both parents have a tradition of extended family gatherings that their children are expected to attend.
To avoid a clash over dates and events that both parents value, the parties will often arrange to reverse roles every year, so that nobody feels like they are losing out.
Many former spouses would be happy if they never spoke to one another again after a divorce, but it’s virtually impossible when they share decision-making responsibility over children.
Depending on how healthy relations are between the parents, guidelines or limits may be required for communication, providing for respectful, child-focused messages via text, email or another preferred method of communication.
In addition, parenting plans may need to cover the length and manner of communication between one parent and the children during the time they are in the care of the other parent.
Special or extraordinary expenses — also known as Section 7 expenses, after their place in the Federal Child Support Guidelines — are one of the most litigated issues in Canadian family courts, in part because of the breadth of costs they cover, many of which are not considered “special” or “extraordinary” by all parents.
For example, expenses associated with post-secondary education are typically the biggest ticket item under Section 7, but earlier in a child’s life, uninsured healthcare (particularly orthodontics) and extra-curricular activities are more likely to be the main drivers.
In general, judges will share these kinds of expenses between parents in proportion to their income, but some find it more straightforward to agree to a 50-50 split or lay out some other formula as part of their parenting plan.
There are a whole host of potential tax breaks for parents associated with their children, but the largest is typically the eligible dependant credit.
Parenting plans should also address the distribution of the Canada Child Benefit, tuition tax credits and other less obvious tax benefits in their agreement, to minimize the chances of a dispute further down the line. For example, an informal arrangement for the parent who pays for daycare to claim the associated childcare expense deduction could easily break down if relations between parents deteriorate for some other reason.
Neither party needs to have immediate plans to move their residence in order to contemplate the possibility of a future relocation in a parenting plan.
Our society is more mobile than ever, and it’s possible that family ties, new romantic relationships or fresh employment opportunities could force one or both parents into a decision over where best to base their home.
At the very least, a parenting plan should set out how one parent is to notify the other of their intent to relocate. Plans often specify that one parent is unable to make a major move with the children unless they have the consent of the other parent or a court order to that effect.
For those with equal-time shared parenting arrangements, the plan may also set stricter rules about the parents’ proximity to a child’s school.
Every family law agreement needs a dispute resolution clause that sets out how future conflicts over parenting will be settled.
In my experience, the simple act of spelling out the mechanism to be followed in the event of a dispute is a sound way to of minimizing future conflict between parents.
But just in case push ever comes to shove, this clause should include details about the requirements for notice of an objection, and deadlines for a response from the other parent. Some agreements will also provide for mediation or arbitration as an alternative to proceedings in family court.
If you need help negotiating or mediating the terms of a parenting plan that is based on the best interests and needs of your family, I’d be happy to hear from you.