One of the most difficult decisions parents must make after a divorce or separation involves the amount of time each parent will spend with their child. Sometimes that decision is dictated by necessity.
A parent who works has less time to spend with a child than a parent who has no outside employment. In most situations, however, each parent wishes to spend as much time as possible with the child and neither will be entirely satisfied when they make a schedule for the child to be with each of them.
There are many ways to divide a child’s time between the parents. This article explains the legal principles that guide the allocation of a child’s time with each parent.
Sometimes called “shared care,” parents often find that dividing the child’s time equally between each parent is the fairest outcome. This might also be the outcome that is most pleasing to the child. Splitting time equally means that the child will not worry about favouring one parent over the other.
If the decision is left in the hands of the court, the court will order shared care only if it is in the best interest of the child to do so, and only if shared care is practical. If both parents work in their homes or if both work roughly the same number of hours outside the home (so that each will need to rely on some form of childcare when the child is not in school), shared care may be reasonable. Shared care may be impossible if the parents live far apart from each other and if school attendance prevents the child from spending more than vacation periods with one parent.
When the parents live close to each other, shared care may mean that a child spends three-and-a-half days each week with each parent, or spends a week with one parent and a week with the other. A child might alternate residences every two weeks or every month. A child might instead spend six months with one parent and six months with the other. The schedule that works best will depend upon the parents’ lifestyles, always keeping in mind the child’s best interests.
The Family Law Act requires courts to make parenting orders that give each parent substantial and significant time with the child. If equal time is not practical, the court will at least try to give each parent enough time with the child to permit each parent to play a meaningful role in the child’s life and to participate as fully as possible in the responsibilities of parenting.
Significant time means that each parent should have time in the evening and at night when the child is not in school, time on weekends, and time on significant days, including holidays and birthdays. Each parent should have the opportunity to attend events in which the child participates, such as school plays and sporting activities.
“Substantial and significant time” may be less than equal time, but it should be more than the arrangements that were common in the past, such as one parent taking a child every other weekend and for a week or two during school holidays. The law encourages Family Law Courts to come as close as is reasonably possible to dividing the child’s time equally between the parents.