Design a parenting plan that works for your family
and protects your children from divorce conflict.
You and your partner love your children. That doesn’t change because your relationship with each other has broken down. Parenting is even more important after you separate.
It’s important for your children that you and your partner still work together as co-parents.
During your relationship, you and your partner were used to sharing parenting tasks and making decisions in a certain way. Your roles and responsibilities may change after separation. This can be difficult to navigate.
You and your partner can agree on the considerations that impact your children. If you cannot agree, a Judge or arbitrator will decide, based on the law and what’s in the best interests of your children.
Courts and lawyers use legal terms and concepts to help structure arrangements and resolve issues.
Different statues apply to married or unmarried parents and different legal terms are used, but the general concepts are the same. The Family Law Act is provincial legislation that applies to unmarried partners.
The terms “custody” and “access” are old fashioned and are used in the Divorce Act, which does not apply to unmarried parents.
For a better understanding, below are some common legal parenting concepts that may apply to you:
Parents are almost always guardians
Guardianship is a term in the Family Law Act that refers to a bundle of rights, powers, and responsibilities, of parents or other people who are legally responsible for children.
Among their responsibilities, guardians decide where children live and make the decisions that affect children.
There is a difference between major and day-to-day decisions
Major decisions often include non-emergency medical/dental care, education, religion, and activities. Generally, both parents together make these major decisions.
You and your co-parent can also split major decision-making. For example, you may choose your children’s doctors and dentists, and your co-parent may decide where they go to school.
In extreme circumstances, one parent may be granted sole decision making.
Major decision-making can be reviewed by the Court if there is a change in circumstances that meets the legal threshold.
Day-to-day decisions, like what the children have for dinner, are usually made by the parent caring for the children at a particular time.
Where children live and the parenting schedule
If there is a dispute about which parent the children will live with, the Courts will decide what is in the best interests of the children.
Children may live with one parent.
It is most common for children to spend time with both parents and sleep at the homes of each parent, based on the schedule. The children’s residence refers to the home where they sleep most.
Shared parenting means that children live almost equally with each parent.
Shared parenting refers to where the parents are sharing the day-to-day care of the children on an approximately equal basis. For example, one week with each parent, or several days each week with each parent. The schedule is tailored to each family and their children. This type of situation works best if the parents are able to communicate effectively and live in the same area. Shared parenting also has implications for child support.
Split parenting means that siblings live with different parents.
This is fairly unusual, although sometimes it works for families when there is a wide age difference between the children, there is severe hostility between the children, or the parents are unable to care for all the children at the same time.
Parenting time refers to the time that your children spend with you and your co-parent.
Spending time together with each parent is the right of the children, not the right of the parent. The Courts consider it in the best interests of the children to get to know each parent on an individual basis. Regular time with both you and your spouse is very important as it helps maintain your children’s emotional bond despite the separation.
You and your co-parent have an obligation to encourage your children to spend time with the other parent. It is important that you both follow the schedule and if a change is required, to give the other party ample notice and an alternative. You and your co-parent should use your best efforts to make parenting, especially at exchanges of the children, go smoothly.
You and your co-parent should work together to try to maintain the children’s routine. It is important to understand that you cannot interfere or control what happens during the other parent’s parenting time, so long as the children are safe. During their time with each parent, children get to bond with that parent and get used to their new life after separation. This may include contact with that parent’s new partner.
Parenting time should be designed to fit the needs of the children. Parents or the Court can decide whether it is structured or open, specific or flexible, or if it comes with conditions.
Here are some common terms used when talking about parenting:
Reasonable and generous parenting time
“Reasonable and generous parenting time” is a standard, open and flexible arrangement. If the parents can communicate, they can arrange specific dates and times amongst themselves and have a flexible parenting plan.
Specified parenting time
“Specified parenting time” is also reasonable and generous access but sets out specific dates and times. This is most common. A structured parenting schedule often reduces stress by avoiding miscommunication and confusion.
Conditions on parenting time
Parenting time is rarely denied by the Courts unless there are exceptional circumstances such as alcohol, drug or physical abuse. However, if the situation is serious, the Court may place conditions like, for example, supervision, time limits, or a no drinking clause.
“Supervised parenting time” means that a third-party is present during a parent’s time with their children. It may be appropriate in situations where there are concerns about drug, alcohol, physical or other abuse, or inability to parent. The supervisor can be a mutually agreed-upon party, or a professional from a supervision agency.
The Courts and legislation encourage parties to have a Parenting Plan.
The parenting plan would set out major decision-making responsibility and how and when your children spend time with you and your co-parent, and even a process for dispute resolution. The plan is unique to each family, based on your family’s needs and issues. The ultimate goal is, of course, to come up with a plan which will be best for your children.
Interim versus final arrangements
Interim parenting arrangements can be agreed to or decided until parents are able to make final decisions or have a trial on the issues.
Mobility refers to when the children move
Regardless of the type of custody, a move by one parent may have serious consequences for the other parent and the children. If a parent applies to the Court for an Order allowing or preventing a move, the Courts will consider the best interests of the children – in the current situation – in the proposed new city or living with the parent who does not move.
Enforcing parenting time
The Court will enforce a parent’s parenting time. If you have a specific Court Order with a police enforcement clause, the police may also enforce it. This method of enforcement is usually only appropriate in extreme cases (such as possible child abduction) as it can be distressing to your children. The Court also has the discretion to discipline a parent who regularly interferes or limits the other parents time through fines, contempt of Court, and even a change in custody. If you are having problems enforcing your access, talk to your lawyer.
Parenting After Separation Seminars
These are free seminars offered by the Court to assist parents who have separated. This course is mandatory if you are divorcing and voluntary if you are not married. We strongly recommend that you take this course.
A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce
Co-parenting after Separation – A guide
A guide for Stepparents, Joint Custody, and Shared Parenting
Up to Parents – Free help for separated, divorced, and never-married parents
Our Family Wizard – A Co-parenting Platform
Parenting after Separation Course – High Conflict
Travel Consent Letter
Government of Canada recommended consent letter for children traveling abroad.
Focus on Communication in Separation
Calgary Counselling Centre: Children of Divorce Program
Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce (Sesame Street)
TedX: Impact of Divorce on Children
Helping your Child Through a Divorce