Child Custody Solicitors
The last thing any loving parent wants when they are getting divorced is to see their children treated like pawns. The right child custody solicitors can make all the difference between a situation where everyone feels cared for and secure, and a position which can make children feel insecure and unwanted, and possibly lead to lasting emotional damage.
Agreeing care arrangements for your child or children is a top priority when divorcing. Anyone with Parental Responsibility has legal rights and responsibilities, regardless of whether they are the resident parent. There is no “right” or “wrong” when deciding arrangements for children in a divorce, and there is only what is right for your family.
Research supports the belief that children in loving, stable homes are happier and more emotionally stable than those who do not know when or where they will next see their parent or caregiver. No matter how angry or bitter you feel towards your spouse unless your wellbeing is at risk by talking to them, it is beneficial to at least attempt mediation to resolve child arrangements. Being willing to put your differences aside for the sake of your child’s welfare sends them an important message of parental stability – you may not be each other’s partner anymore, but you are still united in your love for and care of them.
Take your time when determining care arrangements and ask for your child’s input if you consider they are old enough. They can share their wishes via a mediator, who is an impartial third party, if you have concerns your child may feel pressured to show “loyalty” towards one parent over the other, or if you think they may become stressed by the idea that their wishes may upset one or both of you.
Child arrangements need to be clear and communicated to your child in a way they understand. Do not agree to any arrangement you believe your spouse will not uphold, or which you think you will struggle to keep to. Adults can respond flexibly to sudden changes, but children find it confusing and distressing. However unintentional or unavoidable, it sends the message that they are not important and may lessen their trust in their parents.
Talk about having consistent, or at least similar, rules in both your both your homes. Doing so will help your child settle with their new living arrangements. Think about bedtimes, homework, chores, and discipline. You will also need to consider who will collect and return your child, what happens on birthday and other special occasions, and whether the non-resident parent can contact their child in between visits either via phone or online. Agree on who will be responsible for taking your children to their doctor or dental appointments, and how you will manage childcare in the school holidays – crucial if both of you work. When will you introduce children to new partners? How will you share relevant information like school reports? Who will take the children to their out of school activities and how much contact will they have with their extended family?
You can appreciate that there are a wealth of questions to consider which is why it is vital you take your time when planning child arrangements. Your divorce lawyer can help identify any key aspects you may miss.
Resident Parents and Parental Responsibility
The parent whom the child lives with most of the time is called the resident parent. How, and how often, the other parent has contact will need to be decided before your divorce is granted. Although you can’t agree to an arrangement if you know it is unworkable- for example having the children stay with you overnight if you work regular night shifts, a mediator can assist you to find workable alternatives that both you and your ex-partner can accept.
If both parents have Parental Responsibility, they have an equal say in raising their child regardless of how much time is spent with each parent. You will need to agree on where your child will be educated, medical consent if they require treatment, and whether they will be raised by the rules of a particular religion or culture. One parent can’t change their child’s surname without the agreement of the other, nor can they take them out of the country – even on holiday – unless the other person with Parental Responsibility gives permission. You can even prevent your child from being issued with a passport if you are worried your spouse may abduct them.
Keeping your discussions amicable (at least in front of your children) and not talking negatively about each other, will make adjusting to your divorce easier for your children and help the process of your divorce flow more smoothly than if every discussion is an argument or disagreement.
Money is often a cause for lasting discontent between divorcing spouses. As with child arrangements, mediation or collaborative law can be very useful in resolving disagreements without having to go to court for a judge to decide. Write down all the costs associated with raising your children before you start to negotiate, so you both understand what needs to be paid for. Items to consider include:
- School fees or nursery fees
- School uniform, trips, extra equipment, or extra tuition
- Travel between each of you
- Everyday clothing and shoes
- Pocket money
- Mobile phone contract
- Birthday parties and treats
You will need to decide who will pay for these items and how. Will one parent give the money to the other as it is necessary, or will they pay a regular amount of maintenance into a bank account and, if so, who can access that account? The needs of your children will change as they grow so include a statement about how often you will review your maintenance agreement.
Child maintenance can be determined in two ways. The first is to agree on the details between yourself. These can then be put into a Court Agreement to make them legally binding or, if you don’t feel that is necessary, can be written into an agreement by your lawyer, so you have the details clearly recorded for future reference.
The next option is to use the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which replaced the Child Support Agency (CSA) for new claims in 2014. CMS can only be used for children residing in the UK. CMS payments are made to the parent whom the child resides with most of the time by the other parent. The amount of the payments will depend on the paying parent’s gross income, how many nights the child or children stay over at their house each week, and whether the paying parent pays maintenance for other relevant children.
Child Arrangement Orders
Where parents can’t reach an agreement through discussion, mediation or collaborative law, arrangements will be determined by a court and will be legally binding. In addition to parents, Child Arrangement Orders can be requested by anyone who has Parental Responsibility, guardians or special guardians, a person holding a Residence Order for the child, anyone who has lived with the child for at least three years, such as a step-parent. They can include details of any aspect relating to the child’s life such as which parent they will live with and how much contact they have with their other parent.
The process of Child Arrangement Order is typically:
- You fill in and submit a C100 form to the family court and pay the appropriate fee. If you have suffered from domestic violence, or you and your child are at threat of harm, you also need to complete a C1A form. These are available from a family court or your family solicitor.
- A judge will be appointed and will review your application and the supporting documents. A first hearing will take place, and it may be possible for you and the other party to reach an agreement that is mutually acceptable. If so, the court will set it out in a Court Order to make it legally binding. If you can’t agree, the judge will make the decision and set it in an order. If a judge doesn’t have enough information to make a decision they will set a date for a second or subsequent hearing to give you time to provide it.
- A final hearing takes place only if you and the other party have been unable to reach an agreement and the judge has enough information to make it on your child’s behalf. The judge will assess the information provided by both parties and give their reasoning behind their decision.
The judge’s decision is final and, if you want to appeal, you need to do so within 21 days but be aware that appeals are rarely granted so talk to your lawyer first
If your circumstances change and the Court Order no longer suits your child’s needs, or if the other party regularly ignores the instructions in the Court Order, you can apply to the court to request the order to be amended. Again, your family lawyer can help with this process to make sure you give your application the best chance of being accepted by the court.
You can assist your application for residency by:
- Being aware of your rights as a parent
- Obtaining Parental Responsibility if you do not already have it
- Attending mediation sessions and showing you are willing to cooperate with the child’s other parent or primary caregiver
- Preparing yourself so you understand what is being discussed and how it affects you
- Working with a family solicitor who not only has experience handling child custody cases but who has had success with couples in situations similar to yours
- Keeping to interim agreements. Arrive on time when you are collecting or returning your child, and don’t cancel or change your parenting time.
- Staying involved with your child’s life and taking steps to keep them in contact with their extended family
- Trying to maintain amicable relations with your ex-partner and their family
- Doing what the court asks of you to show you are serious about your petition, and that you are committed to being the best parent you can be
- Not speaking negatively about your ex-partner to your child, or within their hearing, and don’t share details of your divorce proceedings beyond what they need to know. Your separation or divorce is between you and their other parent.
- Arriving for any court hearings on time and appropriately dressed. Positive impressions count.
Joint Residency and Standard Contact
A joint residence order gives both parents equal time with their child and allows them the same rights when it comes to making decisions about their child’s life. It is, for all intents, a parenting partnership.
More common in UK divorces is Standard Contact, where one parent is the primary resident parent, and the other has defined access times. Both parents have the same rights and responsibilities regardless of how much access the non-resident parent has, and how whether their contact is direct (in person) or indirect (for example, via online video calls).
Joint Residency should be discussed as an option during your mediation or collaborative law sessions. Older children can also be consulted – via a mediator or other impartial third party if they prefer – about their wishes regarding where they will live and how much time they will spend with their other parent. A Joint Residency order works best when parents are geographically close, so the child’s school and social life is not affected by moving between households.
Most child residency agreements are between parents but there are times with other parties may become involved. If an unmarried parent dies or becomes incapacitated, then their parent or sibling – the child’s grandparent, aunt or uncle – may seek residency or shared residency. Even if the other biological parent has Parental Responsibility, an application like this would be considered if, for example, the child had a close relationship with their grandparents but had not seen their other parent for several years.
Child custody is probably the most important part of your divorce to get right. Take your time to find a divorce solicitor you feel comfortable working with, whom you believe respects you and your situation, and who listens to you. It is important you trust your lawyer because they are the ones who will be fighting in your corner to ensure you and your children have the best possible outcome from your divorce.
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