Equal time parenting arrangements in family law
The Family Law Act, since 2006, has proceeded on the basis that courts apply a presumption towards equal shared parental responsibility. This is not the same as an equal time arrangement. What it means is that both parents have an equal say over any long-term decisions affecting the children’s upbringing, such as their education, major decisions regarding health or what religion, if any, the child might be brought up in. Equal shared parental responsibility is usually presumed unless there is a good reason not to, such as family violence. Where equal shared parental responsibility is appropriate, the courts must then consider equal shared care, or equal time arrangements between parents.
This is where we get into difficult territory of considering what is in the children’s best interests. Some considerations for equal time parenting might be how well parents communicate, the distance between their homes and otherwise whether such an arrangement would be reasonably practicable.
Is Equal Time Parenting Appropriate?
Is equal time with each parent the best arrangement for your kids? Well, maybe, maybe not. Research has shown that equal parenting arrangements work best in situations where the parents are child-focused to a fault, able to easily communicate and come to joint decisions about the child without undue conflict. When parents are frequently in conflict or are unable to communicate or collaborate, children in equal parenting arrangements, regardless of their age, bear the burden of considerable psychological and emotional strain.
An important factor in determining whether shared care is appropriate is the age of the children. Young children particularly will have a primary care figure with whom they share a close attachment. Depending on circumstances this can be either a mother or a father. Artificially forcing a equal time parenting arrangement may only end up disrupting the child’s attachment to both parents, potentially causing emotional or behavioural issues down the line. In circumstances like this, equal time may have to wait until the child is older and more able to deal with shuttling between households.
Parents often get caught up in their right to see their children. It is absolutely the case that, barring extraordinary circumstances like family violence, parents should have a right to see and care for their children. However, for parents this sometimes boils down to questions about the number of nights at each house or changeover times. This isn’t what is important for children. If we focus on the rights of the child, factors such as stability, safety and freedom from their parents’ concerns become paramount.
The family courts exist to bring a final end to litigation, true. But there is no guarantee that both parents will be satisfied with the result and in fact it is more likely that neither will be. Nor is there any guarantee that court orders will bring an end to parental conflict, particularly where those parents were originally unable to agree before going to court. This is why it is important to view care arrangements, particularly equal time arrangements, through the prism of what is best for your children and not what is fairest for you. Open lines of communication between parents are crucial (where possible). Family counsellors or mediation services can help facilitate this communication.
Sometimes, even with the best communication, equal time with each parent just is not practical. Maybe a child is breastfeeding, or one parent lives a 3-hour commute from the child’s school. This doesn’t mean you won’t be involved in your children’s lives. Where equal time isn’t appropriate, the courts consider “substantial and significant time”. This means both weekend and weekday time, time involved in your child’s day-to-day schedule and time for holidays.
Keep in mind as well, that flexibility is key in parenting arrangements. As circumstances change, so may care arrangements. Just because the arrangements are not what you would prefer now, they may change as your child’s needs change.