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Parenting Plan versus Consent Orders: Which Should You Choose?

divorced parents with their children

In the realm of Australian family law, there are generally two options to consider when looking at formalising parenting arrangements post separation and divorce: a parenting plan or consent orders. While both serve the purpose of establishing child custody, visitation schedules, and parental responsibilities, they differ in their legal status, flexibility, and enforcement mechanisms.

Parenting Plans

A parenting plan is a written agreement between separated or divorced parents that outlines the arrangements for the care and custody of their children. These plans are often developed through mutual agreement, with the primary focus being the best interests of the children involved. Key aspects of a parenting plan typically include:

  1. Custody and Living Arrangements: Detailing the living arrangements for the children, including where they will reside and how time will be shared between parents.

  2. Visitation Schedules: Establishing specific times and dates for the non-custodial parent to spend time with the children, including weekdays, weekends, holidays, and vacations.

  3. Decision-Making Authority: Clarifying how major decisions regarding the children's upbringing, such as education, healthcare, and religious upbringing, will be made.

  4. Communication: Outlining methods for communication between parents regarding the children's welfare and any changes to the parenting plan.

Advantages of Parenting Plans:

  1. Flexibility: Parenting plans offer greater flexibility compared to formal court orders. They allow parents to tailor arrangements according to their unique circumstances and the evolving needs of their children. They are more easily changed or adjusted as the needs of the children change.

  2. Informality: Parenting plans can be created without the need for legal representation or court involvement, reducing costs and potential conflict. They can be prepared in mediation or by the parties themselves.

  3. Maintaining Relationships: By fostering cooperation and collaboration between parents, parenting plans can help preserve amicable relationships and minimize the emotional impact on children.

Consent Orders

Consent orders are legally binding agreements approved by the Family Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court. They formalise parenting arrangements in a manner similar to court orders issued after litigation, but with the crucial distinction that they are made by mutual agreement between the parties. Consent orders cover the same fundamental aspects as parenting plans but carry the weight of a court order, ensuring compliance and providing avenues for enforcement if necessary.

Key Elements of Consent Orders:

  1. Approval by the Court: Unlike parenting plans, consent orders require approval by the court. Once approved, they have the same legal effect as orders made after a court hearing.

  2. Enforceability: Consent orders are enforceable by law, meaning that if one party fails to comply with the terms outlined, the other party can seek enforcement through the court system and penalties may apply for breaching the orders.

  3. Certainty and Finality: By obtaining consent orders, parties can achieve certainty and finality in their parenting arrangements, reducing the likelihood of future disputes or challenges.

Choosing Between Parenting Plans and Consent Orders: The decision between opting for a parenting plan or seeking consent orders depends on various factors, including the level of cooperation between parents, the need for formal legal recognition, and the desire for enforceability. While parenting plans offer flexibility and informality, consent orders provide legal certainty and enforceability. Parties should consider their circumstances and consult with family law professionals to determine the most suitable option for their situation.

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