A Parenting Plan Guide and a Parenting Plan Template, intended to assist parents, counsel, courts, and other professionals in developing child-focused and developmentally appropriate parenting plans, were developed by the Ontario Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts is an interdisciplinary association that aims to advance the objective of resolving family conflicts through education, innovation, and collaboration.
The Parenting Plan Guide and Template was initially published in 2020, based on social science research and the views of the Association’s Task Force members, who were family law professionals and experts in parenting. In 2021, there were amendments to the Divorce Act and Ontario’s Children’s Law Reform Act, and the Parenting Plan Guide and Template were updated in 2021 as a result but remained largely consistent with the 2020 version.
What is the Parenting Plan Guide and Template?
A parenting plan, generally speaking, is a written agreement between parents that addresses how the parents will work together to raise their children after a separation and includes matters such as:
- Parenting time
- Decision-making responsibility
- Sharing information about the child
- Communication methods
- How disputes will be resolved
- Relocation of one parent
- Culture, language, religion
- Medical care
- General principles for co-parenting
- Review of arrangements (for instance, as the child gets older or upon a change in a parent’s circumstances, such as schedule changes or new partners)
One objective of a parenting plan is to help minimize future conflict by having clear expectations and guidelines, which can reduce the need for discussion and negotiation on an ongoing basis, which can be particularly important for situations when communication between parents is a struggle or conflict can be high. Discussing and coming to a parenting plan can be a useful exercise in compromise and communication for parents.
The AFCC Parenting Plan Guide offers suggestions for improving parental communication and cooperation and outlines many issues that often arise in post-separation parenting. However, only some issues will apply in some cases, and there may be some issues that are not included in the Guide that may be necessary to include depending on the circumstances.
The AFCC Parenting Plan Template is free to use and is not copyrighted. The Parenting Plan Guide should be read fully before using the Parenting Plan Template. The Parenting Plan template contains sample language around many common parenting issues that parents can review and discuss. It may be incorporated into a parenting plan customized to their unique circumstances. The Parenting Plan Template is “a starting point for drafting a detailed plan” and offers examples only. The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts advises that it should not just be adopted wholesale without careful consideration and without consulting with a family law lawyer who can advise on legal rights and responsibilities.
The Parenting Plan Guide and Template include recommendations and suggestions for children of different ages based on social science research. For instance, it recommends that toddlers only go up to two or three days without seeing a parent unless the child is not accustomed to a shared parenting arrangement or has issues with transitions. For pre-schoolers, if the child is used to roughly equally shared parenting, the Guide recommends that the child not spend more than three nights away from each parent (i.e. would not recommend a week about scheduling, as might work well for an adolescent). However, this will be very individual to the child and their needs, their relationship with the parents, and the parent’s schedules.
Is a Parenting Plan Legally Binding?
A parenting plan may be legally binding by incorporation into a separation agreement, as a stand-alone domestic contract, or by incorporation into a court order. To be a legally binding agreement, it must meet the requirements of section 55(1) of the Family Law Act, meaning that it must be made in writing, signed by the parties, and witnessed (or incorporated into a court order).
The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts recommends consulting a lawyer to get legal advice about the enforceability of a parenting plan and the implications of a parenting plan for other family law issues such as child support. Even if two parents negotiate a parenting plan independently, the Association recommends seeking independent legal advice before finalizing it.
Have the Ontario Courts Endorsed the Parenting Plan Guide or Parenting Plan Template?
The Parenting Plan Guide and Parenting Plan Template are not mandatory; they are resources created by an association outside of the Ontario government and the Ontario courts.
However, the Ontario courts have referenced with approval the Parenting Plan Guide in several cases, particularly its recommendations for different development stages. For example, in the case of McBennett v Danis, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice discusses the “clear emphasis” placed on parenting plans by the Divorce Act. Section 16.6(1) of the Divorce Act provides that:
“The court shall include in a parenting order or a contact order, as the case may be, any parenting plan submitted by the parties unless, in the opinion of the court, it is not in the best interests of the child to do so, in which case the court may make any modifications to the plan that it considers appropriate and include it in the order.”
A ”parenting plan” is defined in the Divorce Act as “a document or part of a document that contains the elements relating to parenting time, decision-making responsibility or contact to which the parties agree.” The Court in McBennett commented that Parliament’s decision to include these provisions provides a “clear direction” and “clear policy decision … that parental choice respecting parenting matters should be respected if they are consistent with the child’s best interests.” The Court went on to say that “judges and all other key players involved in Family Law cases should encourage parties to formulate such plans and to consult various guides and tools that have been developed to assist in the creation of child-focussed plans that promote the best interests of children.” One of the resources cited with approval by the Court was the Parenting Plan Guide and Template, with the court calling them “extremely helpful” and accepting that they summarize basic social science knowledge about separation’s effect on children and guidance to formulate parenting arrangements in children’s best interests.
As another example, in the case of H v A, Justice Kraft noted that the Parenting Plan Guide:
“has been found by many courts to be of great assistance in determining n determining parenting schedules that are in a child’s best interests, depending on the age of the child and his/her developmental stage. While not binding on the courts, the Guide provides a great deal of helpful information and reflects a professional consensus in Ontario about the significance of current child development research for post-separation.”
The case of Melbourne v Melbourne drew on two suggestions from the Parenting Plan Guide for young children, specifically for the parenting time transitions to occur at neutral locations (daycare or school) and that the number of transitions is minimized due to the stress that they caused for the children. The court in Melbourne noted that the “modern approach” to parenting plans was to include additional detail in the plan to remove discretion and avoid future conflict “to map out the best childhood possible for children growing up in two (or more) homes.”
When is the Parenting Plan Template Not Appropriate?
The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts is clear that negotiating a parenting plan may not be advisable or possible when there is an ongoing situation of partner abuse or when one or both parents are experiencing serious mental health or substance abuse problems.
Contact the Windsor Family Law Lawyers at Howie Johnson Barristers & Solicitors for Advice on Family Law Issues
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