When you have children and you go through separation or divorce, one thing which you are going to have to decide is the arrangements for where your children will live and who will be caring for them on a day-to-day basis
As with many of the practical arrangements, you can choose to avoid the courts and make these decisions between yourself and your ex. In fact, this is the optimal option if possible, not just because of all the money and stress you will save from legal proceedings, but because research also shows that parents tend to be far more satisfied with contact arrangements they have decided themselves, rather than are court ordered.
What are the choices for living arrangements?
There are two main choices:
- Your children mainly live with one parent, and the other parent has contact through visits, overnight stays and/or holidays with them.
- Your children live fairly equally with both parents – this is called shared custody.
Most living arrangements see a child live mainly with one parent, and in many of those circumstances, that parent is their mum. However, this is not how it has to be – it is up to you and your ex to work out what arrangements would best work for your circumstances.
Although it is not common practice in the UK, shared custody has a lot of potential benefits.
It means that neither parent has to spend long portions of time away from their children – both parents are far more involved in this instance. This allows day-to-day decision making to be more evenly split, as is the work and responsibility. The children get regular contact with both their parents, have two homes, and live with both parents rather than living with one, and ‘visiting’ the other.
Obviously, there are some additional considerations, such as you need to still live fairly close to your ex, as the point is that the children continue to attend the same schools, activities, etc. You will also need to be able to communicate with your ex to some extent, as there will be day-to-day practicalities which you will need to discuss, and sometimes flexibility. You also need to think through the longer-term implications of the arrangement, as for shared custody to be able to work on an ongoing basis, you will both need to continue to make the commitment, which could be trickier if you change jobs or need to move away from the area.
If shared custody is a living arrangement you would like to explore or try, discuss it with your partner or in mediation.
What if my child doesn’t live with me?
If you don’t live with your child, you will need to agree with your ex, when you get to see or talk to them – the ‘contact’ part of the arrangement.
There are no rules about how much is the ‘right’ amount, so you can decide this between yourselves. Remember that contact includes day visits, overnight stays, even phone calls.
It is also important to consider how contact will work during holidays, as this may be different to the usual weekly routine and agreement.
Part of working out contact, is about getting all the details agreed, which is important to prevent miscommunication later on. These details might include what days/times the non-resident parent can see their children, who is doing the pick-ups/drop offs, etc.
Things can change
When you are setting the arrangements for your children, remember that you may not know what really works for you all until you give it a go. If you are struggling to agree on a pathway, agree to trial a couple of different options to see in reality what does work best for you.
Even where you come to a set of arrangements, you may find over time that they need to adapt and change anyway. As you or your ex’s circumstances change, as the needs of your child/ren change. As your children get older, they may also have stronger opinions about how and where they spend their time.
If you have come to arrangements for your child’s care and living arrangements together, you can agree together to change these in the future as needed. Even if the arrangements have been set by court order, there may be room to amend them, but seek legal advice first.
Make sure your children understand too
It might well be that you adults make the decisions about where the children will live, and there is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to remember that the decisions have a huge bearing on your children themselves. While discussing and making the arrangements, find a neutral place to talk away from your child/ren, as it can be confusing for them to overhear these kinds of conversations, but once you have reached an agreement, make sure that they understand what the arrangements are, as this will be is important for supporting them to also come to terms with them.
When you have agreed them, explain the arrangements to your child/ren and perhaps even consider getting them a diary or a wall planner so they can easily see and understand when they will be seeing each of you.
Try and keep to a regular routine for them, regardless of where they will be, as this is important for their consistency. This means making sure you both know when they have commitments like after school clubs, birthday parties, etc, and supporting them to attend those things as normal, so they don’t feel they are missing out on these things because their parents have separated.
If you cannot agree
If you cannot agree on the living and contact arrangements for your children, you may wish to consider mediation. This will give you a neutral third party to help facilitate the discussions. It is cheaper than going through court proceedings, and will still allow you both to have a say and hopefully reach a compromise. Even if you wish for the court to make the living/contact arrangements, they will usually require that you have been through mediation first (except in abusive situations).
Visit the Family Mediation Council for more information.
When your children cannot see both their parents
While it is preferable for children to continue to have a relationship with both of their parents, sometimes this is not possible. This might be because your ex does not want to see them, or because it is not safe for the children to be in their care.
If over time you become concerned about the wellbeing of your child when they are not with you, there are steps you can take, and not all of them have to be drastic ones. Check out What to do if concerned about the wellbeing of your child while in the care of the other parent for more information.