I frequently get asked how children should share their time between their parents. More parents agree or demand from the other that they have equal time. I have seen numerous variations of how that is done in practice, for example:
- One week with each parent.
- 3 days with each parent in turn, or 4 days with each parent in turn.
- Week days in turn with each parent.
- Complicated schedules where over a two or three week period weekdays and weekends are evened out but there are frequent changes.
Any solution you agree must work for the children and must be practical depending on your work schedules. So alternate weekends make little sense to a parent who has to work every third weekend for example.
None of the above solutions seems satisfactory to me. A week with each parent means a child has to take all of their belongings and school kit with them each week and does not see the other parent for a long time. This may work where parents are still close and live close by and a child can nip over to the other house to get some stuff they may have forgotten, but could be a strain in other cases. All other suggestions seem very disruptive with children not knowing whether they are coming or going.
What seems to work for a lot of families, however, (assuming both parents work regular office hours or something close to that) is this system:
- Alternate weekends from Friday to either Sunday night or Monday to school/nursery. If this is to Monday that would be 3 nights in 14.
- The same weekdays with each parent in one chunk, i.e. Mondays and Tuesday with one and Wednesdays and Thursdays with the other parent. This means 2 nights a week or 4 nights a fortnight. Together with the weekends those are 7 nights a fortnight and exactly equal.
- Equal division of holidays.
The advantages of this system are:
- Weekends are alternating so parents can actually make plans and go away with the children overnight if they want, say to visit family or go to the seaside etc. Or they could just have a lie-in/pyjama morning lounging around of course.
- Most children have some after-school activities (sports or music lessons etc) and with this system the same activity will be with the same parent, e.g. “mum will always take me to football training on Tuesdays”. This also applies to the school timetable.
- Children seem to be able to remember which parent they have been with each weekend, so alternating weekends are a system they can follow. They also seem to be able to remember days of the week and so this system is something they can follow without having to consult a calendar or having an adult tell them. They can make plans, such as inviting a friend around to play (or for revision) Thursday next week without having to think where that would be or who they would need to ask.
- There are only two handovers each week and they can, if necessary be through the school or nursery so parents do not have to meet, which can help if this has been a problem in the past.
- A child will spend at most 2 nights plus a weekend (5 nights) with one parent, so is not away from the other for longer than that.
So it’s a system that’s easy to follow for children and allows whole weekends with each parent.
Even in cases where there is no insistence on equal division, this system can work in a modified form, i.e.
- Alternate weekends from Friday to Sunday night with each parent
- Thursday night with one parent, the rest with the other.
This means that each alternate weekend the child is with the other parent from Thursday to Sunday night. This system could later move to the one I described above in a way that seems very natural for the child.
I have had several callers yesterday with essentially the same issue: the other parent is not agreeing to or not sticking to a clear schedule for time they spend with the child. In those cases I can either act for the parent, take detailed instructions and then correspond, all of which costs you money; or I can give generic advice. So I thought I would set out the basic generic advice here for everyone to read. Let’s take an anonymised example of a heterosexual couple where a young child, still a baby, lives with the mother. The same advice applies to same-sex couples, co-parents etc. The father will not agree to clear times, or although they have been agreed, does not turn up, or turns up at other times. He says that if the mother will not let him have contact on his terms, he will go to court. In any event, he will not pay maintenance if she won’t let him have his time with the child and he is entitled to 50/50 anyway.
Now, I only ever hear one side of the story, so there may be a lot more to it. However, there is a suspicion here that the father is using the contact and child maintenance as a way to exert power and coercive control, which is a form of abuse. It is often very difficult to prove that later in court because the abuser may come across as perfectly reasonable and claims that he is the one who has always made reasonable requests that have been unreasonably denied. Constant changing and arguing can also be grinding and stressful (and that may well be the intent). To avoid the stress and be able to have a case later in court if the matter comes to court, I advise the following:
- Communicate in writing (letter or email, but not texts, messenger etc.) about the proposals. Be clear and concise about what you suggest and why. Do not go into the history and make no reproaches; be practical and constructive. Suggest a contact regime that works for you, your child and that you think works for the father. Say that if it does not work for him, he tell you why it does not and can make alternative suggestions. Ask him to respond by email only. If he rings or texts etc. tell him you would prefer not to discuss this and that instead he should respond by email. This way, you can later if necessary show that you made reasonable suggestions early on.
- If you find it difficult to see if your proposals would work for him, ask a friend who is a parent of a child of similar age. Don’t be stingy when making your proposals, but do not be over-accommodating (e.g. there is no need to suggest that the father can use your home for contact if he is perfectly able to take the child to his home instead – this may be different if he lives 200 miles away).
- Consider any alternative proposals that he suggests and be prepared to accept them if they work; but give reasons if they do not work.
- Keep a diary (cheap paper diary, or an electronic document) which you update with all agreed contact and what times the father turns up, returns the child etc. You can also include any other issues, communication, telephone calls etc. in that diary. Just use bullet points and do not write whole pages of narrative. Such a record will give you the ability to show later on whether or not the father stuck to the agreement. I have often seen parents who claim they did, but could then be shown up. A paper version may look better with judges as a contemporaneous note, but if an electronic version works best for you, use that. Make sure you update it in real time and not a month later when you can hardly remember what happened. I would also use a document or diary which you do not use for anything else so that you can show a print out or copy to the other parent or the court.
- Ignore threats, in particular of “50/50 access” when that is practically fanciful (e.g. the father is not sticking to contact because in addition to his full-time job he is doing overtime).
- Be prepared to adjust the regime as the child gets older and their circumstances and needs change or if either of your circumstances and needs change (e.g. you stop breastfeeding regularly; the child starts swimming lessons etc.).
- If maintenance is not regularly paid by standing order at the rate it should be paid, write to ask for copies of his P60 and recent pay slips within 14 days. If you get them, use the online calculator to work out how much maintenance he should be paying. If it is not forthcoming, send a reminder with a clear deadline (say 7 days, taking account of any holidays etc.) and if that is not forthcoming make an application to the Child Maintenance Service. If you are able to calculate the rate and agree, insist it is paid by standing order each month the day after his salary comes in. If not, apply to the CMS.
These points should help in most cases. If you have any other ideas, tweet me.