When you are separating, a lot of words get thrown around including custody, contact, access, child arrangements, shared parenting and of course, co-parenting. I am sure that many parents’ heads must spin with all the legal jargon.

In recent years, one of the “buzz” words has been ‘co-parenting’. What does co-parenting after separation or divorce mean though?

The Custody Terminology

Perhaps the best place to start is with an explanation of all the children law terminology used to describe who the primary carer of a child is. As a children solicitor who has been representing parents in children law applications for over 20 years, I am old enough to remember the times that judges routinely made custody and access orders.

I still refer to custody and access. That is because parents refer to custody and access. It is not surprising that they do, as the papers, television programmes and films all talk about custody and access. I suspect that is because the media and producers think readers and viewers are not up to date with new terminology.

The law changed the name of custody orders to “residence order” and access to “contact order”. Those labels didn’t stick around for that many years. The current terminology for a children custody, access, residence or contact order is a ‘child arrangements order‘.

What is a children arrangements order?

A child arrangements order combines a custody and access order by specifying what time a child will spend with each parent.

The terminology is meant to make both parents feel of equal value as in most family situations both parents share parental responsibility for their child. This means they have equal rights and responsibilities for their child. That is the case even if they do not spend the same amount of parenting time with the child.

The rationale behind the change in terminology was to get away from the idea that there was one parent who should be labelled as “the parent with care” or the “primary carer” and an “absent pareant”.

What does co-parenting after separation or divorce mean?

Depending on to whom you speak to, you will get a different answer about what co-parenting means after a separation or divorce.

To me, co-parenting is about co-operative parenting. It is about parents sharing the care of their child after a separation or divorce.

What co-parenting does not mean is a slavish equal split of time spent with each parent or an equal split of day-to-day responsibility for a child.

What co-parenting does mean in practise is:

  • Providing consistent parenting in both households, so that is some consistency of routine, of style, of style and types of discipline and of chore expectations.
  • Communication between parents so that they know of issues in the child’s life, such as a bad day at school or a falling out with a best friend.
  • Discussion between parents so, for example, a child doesn’t end up with 2 similar presents on their birthday but perhaps one joint one.
  • Playing to parents’ strengths and weaknesses. If a parent does not like football, but the child does, arranging contact around football so that the other parent shoulders the responsibility of taking the child to matches and shouting at the side-lines.
  • Respecting the other parent and their role in the child’s life, even if they do not spend an equal amount of time with the child. So, for example agreeing that a child can spend fathers’ or mothers’ day with the correct parent, whatever the parenting regime; or making sure a child has bought a birthday card or present for a father or mother.

Co-parenting is all about sharing parental responsibility

This can include child maintenance, but, just as importantly, it  can involve one parent supporting the other parent if they have made an unwelcome decision, such as limiting i-pad time to an hour a day or confiscated a mobile phone.

The other important thing to remember is co-parenting can involve others, such as grandparents, stepparent or extended family. It can be very hard to think of others having a role in your child’s life, but it is easier for the child if they can talk to you openly about life at home with their other family.

As a children solicitor, I am often asked about changing parenting arrangements. We often forget that a child grows up and that the contact that works at age 8 may not suit the child’s needs at age 13. Co-parenting therefore has to evolve with the changing needs of both the child and the family composition and location. After all, half siblings may arrive later to join a child in a household or a parent many have to move out of the area with their job.

However a parents chooses to parent their child, I always recommend that when they are thinking about separating or divorcing, that they try to look at the parenting arrangements from the  perspective of the child’s needs. Your needs may coincide with the child, but having a child-focus often makes it easier to agree on the custody, contact and parenting time.

There are always some parents for whom co-parenting and agreeing on custody and contact is not an option for a whole variety of reasons. That is why, despite the changing terminology, there is always the last resort option of applying to court for a child arrangements order.

For information and advice about children law orders, custody and contact and parenting arrangements please call me on +44 (0) 1477 464020 or email me at louise@evolvefamilylaw.co.uk