Written by Caroline Meyer

The laws in Australia are relatively straight-forward. Children have the right to have a meaningful relationship with both parents as well as to be protected from harm. The protection from harm side of things is taken into account above the rights to spend time with both parents. The child’s best interests come first. When a child is a minor (under 18 years old), the parental responsibility is 50:50 and both parents are equally responsible for the child’s needs. Both parents have the same responsibility when it comes to looking out for the child’s healthcare needs, religious observance, which school will be attended and other long-term decisions. That being said, this does not mean that the child will spend 50% of their time with either parent. This may be decided by the parents or the court. Usually the child will live with one parent and spend time with the other parent outside of the home. With an older child, this can be discussed and they make want to have some say in the matter. For the most part, unless the court determines otherwise, the parents discuss the needs of the child and make the decision on who has the child and when. These types of parenting agreements can be done through the court (consent orders) or by drawing up a written agreement between both parents without resorting to the courts. 

Even if there is some animosity between the separated or divorced parties, this should be put aside when it comes to deciding the best arrangement for the child or children. If you are unable to do so, you can also make use of a mediator to help you reach a compromise or a decision that seems relatively fair to all parties. When no resolution can be reached, you may then need to take it further. In a family law court, the judge will make the decision based on what he deems to be in the best interest of the child. The Family Law Act lays down the principles behind the decisions as to what the best interest of the child may be. 

Along with equal responsibility comes financial responsibility for the child. Even if the child spends more time with one parent, both parents are responsible for the costs involved in raising the child. Parents can agree on what is fair between them or they can apply for a child support assessment. This will help determine an equable split of costs between both parents.  

The custody laws are clear when it comes to responsibility for taking care of a child physically. One thing that separated or divorced parents need to take into account if the child’s mental well-being. While you may offer your child options as to where they live or who they spend time with when they are old enough, custody should never be used to pressure a child to make decisions where they feel the need to choose between parents. As far as possible, shared custody should be amicable. Do not speak badly of the other parent or encourage bad behaviour. Be open and honest with your child. They will be going through a lot of emotions during the first few months after a separation or divorce and will also need time to settle into the routine. 

Know your rights and those of your child when it comes to custody and support. There are many resources available that can assist with this. One thing you need to remember though is that the welfare of the child should always be paramount. Your child’s health and happiness are what you are aiming for, no matter what went wrong between you and the other parent of your child.