How realistic is shared care of the children?

3 children runningEven in families with a stay-at-home mother or father, generally speaking most parents share the care of their children in some way or other.  When parents separate they expect to be able to continue shared care of the children but, obviously, whatever arrangements need to be made can be difficult to envisage before the parties actually separate.  What does shared care look like?  Is it one week with one parent, one week with the other?  This might be “fair” in terms of equalising the time spent with both parents but is it right for children to be continually moving from one house to the next?  Do they not need a base – but with whom?

According to research carried out by Oxford University only 3% of separated families in the UK are currently in a shared care arrangement.  In Australia the concept of “equal shared parental responsibility” except where there is violence or abuse has been enshrined in law since 2006.  This means that of cases coming before the Court, 30% are being forced into a shared care arrangement.  So those parents whose relationship is not good – because they have had to resort to the Court to decide how to care for their children – are the very parents who are forced into a shared care arrangement and are therefore having to have constant communication with each other.

The best interests of children after parental separation is not dependant upon the amount of time which they spend with each parent but more with the quality of parenting received, the quality of the relationship between their parents, the practical resources available including income and housing – and definitely not to any particular pattern of care or amount of time.

Perhaps in an effort to be fair to parents there is a danger of being unfair to children?

Frequent moves between households can, for children, bring practical and emotional difficulties in terms of the constant packing and planning.  But, obviously, the level of difficulty depends on the distance between moves, the frequency of moves, the level of any conflict between the parents and also the child’s personality and preferences.  So each case must depend not just on practical arrangements for the child but what their personality and the effect of a shared arrangement would be on them.  How is the voice of the child heard?  Is it heard at all?

The Courts are currently directed to look at the best needs of the child or children – the welfare of these children should be paramount.  Is it actually possible to achieve both “fairness” to act in the best interests of the child?

Rather than arguing through the Courts and becoming more and more polarised, parents should try and work together to ensure that everyone’s needs – theirs and the children’s – are met, and family therapy may be more appropriate than litigation.  Parents have a responsibility to ensure the long-term wellbeing of their children.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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Protecting children during separation

 

Children playingGenerally, when parents separate, one of the most difficult aspects for them both is how to tell the children and how to make their separation as painless as possible for their children.

There is obviously no good time for telling bad news and no ideal way of doing it.  It is going to vary tremendously according to the ages of the children and circumstances of the separation but equally, obviously, if the parents can be seen to be working together to ensure the best possible outcome for their children, that will help their children enormously.

Most children will know long before they are told that there have been issues between the parents. Maybe there have been arguments or just a feeling of unease and lack of communication.  Most children, too, would prefer the arguments and unpleasantness to end and it may well be that if the parents are happier apart then so will the children.  The important thing to avoid is giving the children the impression that they have to take sides.  They want to be able to love both parents and both parents must allow them to love and have a good relationship with the other.

As parents, we must try not to let our children see us upset when they go to the “other” parent.  They may feel guilty about spending time with one or other parent, if the other is left at home alone and sad.

Most parents manage to work out some sort of practical arrangement so the children see both parents, the children know when they are to be at one or the other’s house and in time a new pattern and new relationships develop.

As Susan Trussel, The Banbury Therapy, said in a recent article, the most important thing is that the children know they are loved by both parents and they don’t have to choose between them.  Working together will help to ensure the best possible outcome for your children and mediation is often a good place to start that process.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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Managing Christmas as a divorced or separated parent

Although it is only November, as soon as the clocks go back it seems that everyone is trying to get us to focus on Christmas.  Christmas can be a great family time of year, an excuse to take some time to visit friends and family, but equally it can be a dreadful time of financial and emotional stress which can, for some families, be the final straw.  Or it can just be average:  most peoples’ Christmases are in fact just that – ok, nothing more nothing less.  But unfortunately the weeks of hype that lead up to Christmas encourage everyone to expect that Christmas should in some way be fantastic –  full of smiling parents and beautiful children, the perfect Granny and other relations in attendance, everyone with lavish and perfectly prepared food and great presents which everyone receives with beaming smiles.  Although we all know in reality it’s not like that, the marketing hype inevitably gets to us.

2 children at the windowSo, how can we manage Christmas better particularly if we do not happen to belong to the perfect family?  I think that what people are really short of, despite the recession meaning that people are also short of money, is time and that instead of spending hours shopping for loads of presents or even buying our children lots of things, we should actually propose a different sort of Christmas where spending time is more important than having presents.  Most adults have far too much stuff and I think that can be said of children too, although they might not so readily admit it.

The message must be that if parents can work together in relation to the arrangements for the children, whether together or separate, it is in their best interests.  Try and manage everybody’s expectations so you do not end up being disappointed about the lack of perfection which is an artificial creation anyway.  Reality might actually be better.

Some key points to focus on if you are separated: –

  • Agree which parent will have access to the children and when.
  • Allow the children to be able to fully relax and have a fun time with only one parent, without feeling disloyal or missing the other parent.
  • Avoid any competition between you about the provision of presents and stuff generally.  Is the parent with a better job or a new partner able to give the children a better time?  Don’t go there!
  • Think about how you deal with the fact that there may be sad memories of past Christmases when you were all together.

Of course Christmas is a difficult time of year for all families, particularly post separation.  Perhaps the following might help: –

  1. Perfect the essential art of enjoying the now – becoming a human being rather than a human doing.  Perfection is, as we have established, impossible so just enjoy what and who you have.
  2. Count to ten or take three deep breaths and relax before responding to a wind up from your nearest and dearest in whatever form  – text, or even Twitter, Facebook e.t.c.
  3. Try and make up your mind that you are going to have a good time this Christmas whatever the circumstances leading up to it and plan ahead.  Having a schedule in place for when the children will be with each partner if you are separated will ease their anxiety and help any transitions between parents.
  4. Try and let go and have fun!

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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Is the divorce process unfair to men?

I make no apologies for revisiting this issue as it does seem to be a common concern.  There is a widespread perception that with the divorce process and any issue or argument over children, particularly if it is conducted through the courts, favours women.  Is this correct?

post_imageThe courts, when dealing with children, have as their primary concern the welfare of the children.  A fairly neutral position and certainly one that is supposedly child focused as opposed to looking after the interests of either parent.

Similarly, if the issue of finances is debated through the courts, then again the court would take a position that both parties to a divorce need to be adequately re-housed and that both parents have to have accommodation suitable for their children to visit.  So why is there this widespread perception that men do badly in divorce, or that the whole process is unfair and biased in some way against them?

It may be in some way related to the other statistic, which is that most divorces are commenced by women.  This may have something to do with the fact that women tend to want to do something about a situation that is unsatisfactory, whereas men are more prepared to put up with a degree of difficulty, provided house, home, pension, finances, remain intact – when these are all disturbed they take it rather badly.

Many men feel that they have worked all their lives to achieve a certain standard of living, and with that, an adequate or even good pension provision.  Obviously a divorce means that the family home may well have to be sold and the sale proceeds distributed, therefore both are in a smaller house, and the highly prized pension pot is also split.  If you are not the instigator of the divorce, you may feel very badly indeed when all these things happen to you, seemingly through no fault of your own – and if your wife is in a new relationship then the pill is even more bitter.

However, if you can step back from the situation, the courts really do try to be even-handed and if you avoid the courts altogether, so much the better.  By using mediation and a collaborative approach to divorce, the focus is on how both parents are going to manage their separation to avoid any damage to the children and to ensure as far as possible, that everyone continues to have a similar lifestyle afterwards.  It cannot be avoided that both parties will be worse off financially as a result of the divorce, but through mediation, there is the real prospect that both parties will feel they’ve had a fair and workable outcome.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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Who cares for the children?

Whenever parties separate and there are children, then a decision has to be made as to whom the children are going to live with.  Do they stay mainly with one parent and have contact with the other or is there some sort of shared parenting arrangement whereby, as far as possible, the children spend equal time with both parents?  Is this a good idea?  Is it a good idea for the parents but not for the children?  How do families best manage the care of their children?  Who cares for the children?

2 children at the windowVery often both parents want to be fully involved with their children’s lives but face the practical difficulty that really the children can only live with one parent which means contact with the other can often be intermittent, alternate weekends and a few days during the week.  Is this enough to maintain proper contact and a good relationship with your child or children?

Lots of fathers fear losing their children if they separate from the child’s mother.  But equally mothers too fear losing their children in some way.  Even if the children live mainly with the mother, there will be weekends when they will be with their father who may have a new partner and possibly even a new family.  Separation can cause pain all round.

There has been a lobby suggesting that if the time the children spent with both parents was equal this would necessarily be the best in all cases.  This highlights the fact that this presumption actually risks subordinating a child’s best interest to the parents’ expectations of ‘equal’ rights.  It can be hard when parents separate to decide what is best for the children as opposed to what is the best for them, the parents.  Do children really want to spend half the time with one parent and half the time with the other with all the practical difficulties involved in changing from one house to another?

Sometimes this can be the best arrangement, particularly if the parents live near to each other and get on well.  But if the parents do not get on well and cannot see each other without arguing then going constantly backwards and forwards creates a lot of tension.

Obviously it is best if that tension can be avoided or dissipated altogether as both parents and children learn to move on and deal with their new situation.

All that can be said really is that there should be no hard and fast ‘rule’.  It is not the case the children automatically stay with their mother:  it is the case that both mums and dads need to look at what is actually best for their children and most of all try and have a good relationship with each other, even though you have separated, to ensure that the time the children spend with both of you is good.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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It’s the children who suffer most

2 children at the windowWe perhaps all know that the traditional nuclear family – mother, father and children that they have produced together, although possibly the “norm” is by no means the only concept of “family” which society recognises.

With the increasing recognition of same sex relationships, other family arrangements are made and it follows too that when these new families break down, the court has to adapt some of the traditional concepts of “family” to meet these new challenges.

A recently reported case dealt with a family dispute between two same sex relationships who shared the care of two children.  So you had the child’s father with his male partner and the child’s mother living with her female partner.  The two girls lived mainly with their mother and her partner, but had contact with their father and his partner.

The adults then fell out and the judge introduced the concept of “principal parents” to describe the two women and “secondary parents” to describe the father and his partner.  The court dispute between the four adults was about what role the men should play in the girls’ upbringing moving forward.  The women felt that it should be limited, whereas the men considered that it should reflect what they felt had been the case so far – to be fully involved in the children’s lives.

Unfortunately the situation between the parents became very acrimonious and this had a devastating effect on the children.  A CAFCASS Officer (court welfare officer) was involved on the children’s behalf and she spoke in relation to one of the children of “the horrendous tangle of emotion and conflict that exists between these adults [which] has resulted in such misery for [the child].  The misery is not because of the way in which she was treated, it is because these adults and their failure to manage their own conflicting feelings, reactions and personal baggage, have handed over the responsibility for coping with this mess to the child.”

Interestingly the judge put it that the child needed “emotional permission” to continue her relationship with the men and that this permission lay “purely in the gift of the women” and they were not prepared to give it.

Although the family arrangement was in some ways far from normal, it does highlight even more clearly how disputes between adults can irrevocably damage children.  It was clear that both children were quite unable to deal with this conflict – and of course why should they have to.

Remember, in any family situation it is never separation that damages children, but conflict.  So whatever the family situation, the adults owe it to their children to keep conflict to a minimum and certainly to avoid involving the children at all in their disputes.

Taking the mediation route instead of going to court will help ensure that some sort of relationship is maintained between the adults as, going forward, although they are separated they will need to both have contact with the children and that needs to be managed well for all concerned.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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Who looks after the children?

children walking through wheat fieldRecent statistics have revealed that not only in most families do both parents work, full or part time, but also more surprising the increasing number of families where the woman is the main breadwinner.  We should not be surprised though it should perhaps lead us to question some other perceptions about who is or should be looking after the children.

When parents separate there is often a fear on the part of fathers that they will in some way “lose their children”, that if they go to Court the odds are stacked against them because the perception is that children always stay with their mothers.

But Judges do actually live in the real world, they and all the Court staff are part of the working population where it is normal for both parents to be juggling work and childcare.  So when parents separate it is only logical that Courts will see that men and women may both work and both want to see their children.  We have plenty of female Judges who may have a stay at home partner looking after their children.  There really is no longer any automatic prejudice in favour of mothers except in the case of very small babies who may be physically dependant on their mother.  It still happens though that the person, often the mother, who has the major child caring role considers that contact is their gift to dispense with as they decide.  The Court’s view is that what is most important is what is in the child’s best interests.  Not what either parent may want.

If we focus on what is in the best interests of the children, it is of course that the parents should not go to Court, should not argue about childcare but should resolve their differences through negotiation and compromise.  This itself conveys valuable lessons to the children.

Fathers are often very fearful about losing contact which can make them over aggressive, anxious that they will lose their children forever.  Perhaps if they were more reassured that the Court’s attitude is very much that children should spend time with both parents, a lot of the hostility could be avoided.

Historically children were very much the man’s property and women had no rights at all on separation or divorce.  Then the approach was that children always stayed with their mother,  possibly we now have a more sensible view which looks at the practical realities of daily life, the needs of the children and the importance of avoiding conflict.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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Kids back to school – time for a divorce?

children walking through wheat fieldWe’ve just had the best summer weather for a number of years and the chance to get out and spend time doing the things we enjoy during our holidays.  However back to school in September often heralds a rethink of people’s situation, getting round to those jobs that you left during the summer whilst the kids were at home and quite often that involves dealing with personal issues. There are always a lot of enquiries about divorce and separation in September and although the end of the holidays may be a catalyst to those enquiries, it is important to remember that your children will have to live with whatever arrangements you make. That might sound obvious but is often forgotten.

When parents separate they will generally both want to be as fully involved with the children’s lives as they were before, sometimes that leads to conflict but what it should lead to is a commitment from both parents to ensure that they work together in some way despite the fact that they are separating.

It is almost impossible for separation not to mean that both parties are financially worse off so it needs the whole family to work together to decide practical issues such as where is everybody going to live and how they are going to manage financially. The last thing you want is to add a hefty legal bill in to all the other extra costs. That can be avoided if, from the outset, you decide to try and collaborate during the divorce process. Your children will be understandably anxious about what is going to happen, assure them that through no fault of their own you are going to be living separately but that you both want the best for them and  ensure that there are no arguments in front of or about them. Parents should take it upon themselves to ensure that they don’t try and burden children with adult issues.

In practice this means that if the kids are going to visit dad, mum needs to give them every encouragement to go; it doesn’t help if she looks sad about them going making them feel in some way disloyal to her or responsible for her being lonely without them. Mum needs to put a brave face on it whatever she might be feeling because these are not emotions children should have to bear. They want to see their mum and their dad.

Similarly when they are at their dad’s they do not want to hear how rotten their mum is – they love their mum (and their dad). They want to be able to speak about one parent to the other without feeling guilty or disloyal or that they somehow can’t mention the other parent. Children need to be able to speak to and about both parents.

Similarly adults need to be sensitive and responsible about their new relationships. It’s no good rushing into a relationship full of enthusiasm without considering the effect that it may have on your children if you bring in a ‘new’ mum or dad, or worse, new siblings!

Kids these days are under a lot of pressure at school, keeping up with their friends. They need plenty of adult support, help and encouragement if their parents are separating. Often this extra support is needed just when those very adults are in the worst possible place to give it, when their life seems to be falling apart because of their separation. Perhaps then we should all be more willing to give practical and emotional support to anyone we know going through a divorce or separation – because it’s never easy.

However people can actually get through a really difficult situation and move on to something better, learning from the experience and using that positively with their children and in new relationships.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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Who has the children?

children walking togetherWhen parents separate a key question is what is going to happen to the children.  Contrary to popular belief both parents not just fathers, fear that they will see less of their children.  Obviously dads worry that they may not have so much contact with their children but mums worry about that too.  The question of who gets the children can and does cause enormous stress and stress can lead to anger and resentment.

A lot of that anger is in the form of assuming that the Courts in some way favour women/mothers but the reality is very different.  Most disputes over children thankfully never get anywhere near the Courts and are resolved by other means.  But the overriding guidelines are that when parents separate they both remain parents of the children, they both have a role to play in children’s lives which mean that they both have equal rights and responsibilities with regard to those children.

Obviously if they are living separately then practical arrangements will need to be made about when the children see and stay with each parent.  But if it is made on the clear understanding that whatever the practical arrangements it is a shared and joint arrangement, it can reduce a lot of the anxiety and anger.

It is helpful for both parents if they recognise that they are both going to be involved in their children’s lives whatever the outcome of the separation.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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children walking together

Proposed Changes to Child Maintenance

children-divorceThe child support agency has had its critics and its difficulties. It was temporarily replaced by CMEC (but nobody noticed the difference and CMEC itself was abolished in March 2012). Since then the Department for Work and Pensions has been responsible for the CSA which in turn was replaced by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) in December 2012.

The CMS has been up and running since the 10th December 2012 but on a trial basis available only to ‘path finder groups’ that is, parents who have 4 children or more, the children have the same parents and they are not currently using the CSA.  All other parents have to continue using the CSA for the time being.

It is proposed that the CMS will replace the CSA once it has been running for a number of months and working well. It is expected that parents who use the CSA will be given notice that their cases will be closed and given the opportunity of using CMS if they need to. These changes are intended to be finalised by the autumn.

There are a number of new arrangements.

If parents cannot agree a maintenance arrangement for their children an application can be made for a statutory child maintenance arrangement and this involves a calculation of maintenance and choosing whether the maintenance collection service is required. If it is, a fee is payable. This is new. The government is obviously seeking to save money and will be charging for its services that were previously provided free.

There are certain conditions involved. The person asking to receive maintenance must live in the UK, the child must live in the UK and the person paying must also live in the UK (or work in the civil service, the armed forces or for a UK based company).

In addition, there cannot be a Court order in place prior to April 2003 or a Court order made after April 2003 that has been made less than 12 months before the application. The child must be under 16 years of age or between 16 and 20 and undertaking full time, non advanced education or aged between 16 and 20 and registered with certain types of government approved training course and child benefit is in payment.

The CMS will decide how much the paying parent should pay to the receiving parent based on a standard formula and can also collect and pass on payments if required.

The CMS can also try to locate the other parent.

There is no right to use the CMS. They will only get involved if asked by either parent or grandparent or other guardian of the child needing maintenance.  It can be used if the child is at boarding school.

The big change is that the government is planning to charge for using the service. DWP have announced that they are considering what fees parents should be charged and expect to announce their final decisions imminently.  There is an intention to impose a 20% fee to be payable by the paying parent on top of the child maintenance and 7% of that will be deducted from the maintenance received.

The new maintenance calculation

Instead of the relatively simple formula used by the CSA (15% of NET income for first child, 20% for second, 25% for three or more) there is a far more complicated formula:

If gross weekly income is less than £100 the child maintenance will be a flat rate of £7 a week.
If gross weekly income is less than £800, the child maintenance will be 12% of gross income for one child, 16% of gross income for two children and 19% of gross income for three or more children.
If gross weekly income is more than £800, the above formula is used and an additional percentage is added of 9% of gross income for one child, 12% for two children and 15% of gross income for three or more children. (These figures are only added on the difference above £800).
Any income over £3000 gross per week is ignored.

As with the previous arrangements this formula changes according to how often the children stay with the paying parent. If the child or children stay with the paying parent for more than 52 nights per year this will reduce payments by one seventh on a sliding scale – as currently happens.

Any children living with the paying parent will reduce payment – one child 12%, two children 16% and three or more 9%.

Obviously these changes are not yet in force but they are the proposals which seem to be imminent. The use of gross payments are in part to avoid excessive pension contributions being used to reduce liability and the fees are either to dare parents using the CMS unnecessarily and to recoup some of the costs of the agency.

It is to be seen whether this ensures reluctant parents are any more willing to pay!

We are grateful to Rachel Goodall of 3PB Barristers Chambers for assistance in writing this article.

For more information or to discuss further please contact Nicky Gough on 07711 527968 or email info@cotswoldmediation.com.

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