You do not have to go to court to sort out arrangements for your child if you are separating or if your family situation is changing. Across the UK, the courts' preference is for parents to agree child arrangements between themselves, outside of court.

As parents with responsibility for the wellbeing of your child, you can make arrangements without needing to ask the court to decide.

This can often be less acrimonious and less costly than going to court - see the Help Advice for Separating Parents video.

Reasons for considering going to court

It is worth considering the alternatives to court unless there is a good reason to go, for example:

  • If you or social services have real worries about your child’s safety or welfare with the other parent.
  • If one of you feels unsafe or intimidated.
  • If one of you has been preventing your child from seeing their other parent. Courts have the powers to order the parent with care to ensure the child has access to the other parent.
  • Maybe you have not been able to get a suitable response from the other parent. Sometimes a court application can help to get a discussion going. The court process can be stopped if an agreement is reached out of court.
  • The parent with care of the child has moved and cannot be located or is about to move away. The court can assist in finding and then contacting the other parent if they are within Northern Ireland. If you are concerned that they may be moving outside of the country you should seek urgent legal advice.
  • The parent with care of the child has passed away and you want to look after the child.

Things to consider when you separate from the other parent

Every family is different.

What is best for your child

As parents, you both will need to decide what is best for your child as you separate because you both remain responsible for your child's wellbeing.

Priority must be given to your child when making arrangements for where they will live and how much time they spend with each parent.

You both must be clear that you are making the decisions based on what is right for your child at this point in their lives.

Family breakdown, if not managed, can have a significant and sometimes a lasting negative impact on children and young people. It is important that your child is supported to experience the most positive adjustment possible after you separate.

Research shows that children manage changing family circumstances better when they are enabled to move between their parents' homes, and their feelings are heard and acknowledged.

Practical arrangements

Sometimes, the practical arrangements for the child moving between their parents' homes is inconvenient, but if it is in the child’s best interests then compromises should be made to suit them.

Flexibility when unpredictable situations arise, such as illness or a change in work or school rotas, may be needed for your shared parenting responsibilities.

Your child’s interests should be prioritised above yours.

Family separation will be different for each family member

If you are feeling overwhelmed, talk to someone who can help you. The loss of a relationship can be experienced as grief and it is important that you seek out support to help you through this experience.

Find a support organisation, a counsellor, a family member, a colleague or someone you can trust will listen. Check out Family Support NI for relevant organisations. Forms Links also has some suggestions under Advice for families breaking up..

If you feel your health is suffering, a doctor may be able to help.

Find the strength to be involved in the arrangements and do not stick your head in the sand.

What to think about when separating

  • Where the child will live and how you manage sharing the care

    When deciding where the child will live and how they will have time with both parents, think about these points:

    • the child’s age, health and development
    • their family and social relationships
    • their education and learning
    • their sense of identity and self-esteem

    If your child is a bit older, you may listen to their thoughts and wishes, and agree the best options with them for now and again later when things change over time.

    They need to be able to say what arrangements make them most comfortable and will be easy to manage day to day. They should not feel pressured into saying what they think will make you happy.

    Look for help with this conversation if you feel you are not thinking clearly or subconsciously seeking their loyalty. See Advice for families breaking up in Forms & Links.

    Whatever you decide as parents, it must be for the child’s benefit and suit their schooling, development and family relationships. Children and young people should be aware that parents are the decision-makers once they have considered all of the wishes and feelings and options.

    Every family is unique and some families may decide the child lives mainly with one parent and sees the other regularly. When this happens, one parent has what is called 'residence' (what used to be called custody) and lives with the child, and the other has 'contact' with the child, spending time together at agreed times. This means you can agree on times for visiting or seeing the parent they do not live with.

    An arrangement where the child lives part of the week with one of you and the rest of the week with the other parent may be appropriate. It is called 'shared residence.'

    As the child grows older, you will need to adapt the arrangements to suit their needs. Hearing the child's point of view is important to make the best decision for them. It is a good idea to think about how you will review or change the arrangements, for example, directly, via email or using a mediator to assist.

  • How you will pay for the things they need

    Another thing to work out is how you will both continue to pay for everything your child needs. Parents have responsibility to pay for the things their child needs until their 16th birthday, or 20th birthday if they are in full-time education not higher than A Level.

    Generally, if possible, it is best to reach an agreement between yourselves on paying for the things your child needs.

    If an agreement cannot be reached, then Child Maintenance can be paid by the parent the child does not live with full-time (the non-resident parent). It is a monthly payment paid to the parent with whom the child lives. Eligibility to pay and the amount is based on the non-resident parent’s income.

    Child Maintenance Choices gives information and advice about child maintenance arrangements.

    More information on calculating Child Maintenance is available from the Child Maintenance Service.

Agreeing child arrangements

If you have decided to separate from your partner, you can try to reach an agreement between yourselves about the arrangements for your child.

Arrangements that you both agree to are often better than those forced on you by a decision from the family court. Many separating parents successfully make their own arrangements that benefit the child. When these arrangements are agreed and put into writing, they are known as a ‘parenting plan’.

As a parent, you have many years of parenting ahead of you, so it is better to get off to a good start with the arrangements.

You will need to decide about these things:

  • where the child will live and managing sharing the care
  • how you will pay for the things they need.

You can make a parenting plan between you that suits your child. It is not necessary to apply for a court Order to make the plan legally binding, but this is an option.

  • How to agree arrangements for your child - a parenting plan

    When possible, it is a good idea to put your decisions about the child in writing as it will help to avoid confusion or disagreement later on. A written agreement about how you will jointly look after your child after separation is called a parenting plan.

    You can also include in your plan how you will communicate with each other and the child and resolve issues that may come up in the future – for example, by talking to each other and, if that does not resolve the issue, by using mediation.

    A parenting plan is an agreement that you sign up to voluntarily. It is not legally binding like an Order from the court. If you want your parenting plan to be made legally binding, you will need a judge to review it and make it a court Order - see Consent Order in Types of family court Orders. Legally binding means the parents are required under law to fulfil the agreement.

    A guide to preparing a parenting plan is available at Parenting Plan Guide. You can use the headings suggested or agree your own.

    A family mediator can help you focus on the needs of your child, develop ideas and options relevant to your situation and help with drafting your parenting plan.

  • Court order for a parenting plan

    A court Order is a legally binding decision of the court made a judge. In Northern Ireland, only a judge in a court can make a court Order. It is possible to apply to the court for a court Order called a Consent Order to make your agreed parenting plan legally binding on you both.

    It is not compulsory to obtain a court Order for a parenting plan and it is up to personal preference. If you are able to talk about and negotiate your childcare arrangements easily, you should not need a court Order. It is generally best to write down the agreed childcare arrangements early in the separation to avoid anxiety for the child or confusion or disagreement at a later stage.

    If it has been difficult to reach an agreement and you are concerned that your child’s other parent will not follow it, you can apply for a Consent Order - see Apply for an Order.

Family mediation

When you are deciding how to manage family arrangements after separation, you may choose to use the services of an independent professional family mediator. They can help you and the other parent of your child focus on the future needs of your child and agree a Parenting Plan.

In Northern Ireland, family mediation is not mandatory and is accessed voluntarily by both parents.

Family mediation is where you meet voluntarily with the other parent and the mediator in person, if possible, or via an online platform. The mediator is trained to help you both focus on the issues that you bring to the meeting. Rather than making recommendations or imposing a decision, the mediator will encourage you to reach a voluntary solution by exploring possible solutions that benefit all.

The mediator is required to be impartial, that is, not to take sides or tell you what to do. They are there to help your discussions. Unless the mediator is a trained solicitor, they cannot give legal advice.

Mediation is not:

  • a substitute for legal advice
  • a way of receiving counselling.

How family mediation works

Mediation is offered in a neutral, calm setting where you are encouraged to listen to each other, to generate options, to negotiate, to compromise and to reach an agreement on what is the best outcome for your child.

It may help you communicate better so that you can continue to discuss parenting issues long into the future. It can also help to make sure that your child's voice is properly considered. Arrangements can be made for the child to meet a specialist mediator who can listen to their wishes and help the parents take those wishes into account.

A mediated agreement reached between both parents (and with children involved, where appropriate) is designed to:

  • Improve parent knowledge and skills for effective co-parenting.
  • Enhance parental wellbeing and reduce stress.
  • Empower parents to be the decision-makers.
  • Reduce the potential of parental alienation due to separation.
  • Improve child wellbeing, reduce stress and anxiety related to parental separation.
  • Improve the likelihood of engaged co-parenting on a continued basis.
  • Reduce potential Adverse Childhood Experiences.
  • Avoid the adversarial family court system.

If you have experienced any kind of domestic abuse during or after the relationship, you may be able to get free legal help from a solicitor. This is so you do not have to talk directly to the child’s other parent.

How to access family meditation

You may have to pay for family mediation, but if you have not begun court proceedings you can get up to 4 free 90 minute sessions with Family Mediation NI.

See also:

Advice Now’s A survival guide to using Family Mediation after a break up provides useful information but please note that it is published for people in England Wales where the rules or duties are different to Northern Ireland. For example, people have to show they have tried mediation before going to court in England and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland.

Hiring a solicitor

You can hire a solicitor to help you with reaching an agreement for separation without going to court.

If you think you might be entitled to financial support to pay for legal services – known as legal aid – you can ask a solicitor to find out. You cannot apply for legal aid yourself, but a solicitor can apply on your behalf. See NI Direct Legal Aid Schemes.

  • A collaborative solicitor

    A collaborative solicitor is a lawyer with special training on using a problem-solving approach. They can help you and the other parent of your child reach an agreement for your separation without going to court. They use collaborative problem-solving to separation, rather than an adversarial approach:

    • a problem-solving approach means negotiating to resolve the problems that separation creates for how the child is looked after;
    • an adversarial approach is where the two parents are opponents arguing for what they each want.

    Collaborative solicitors can work with separating parents to draw up an agreement, including a parenting plan. They are able to give legal advice. The process is a negotiation between you and your solicitor and your child’s other parent and their solicitor. You agree not to go to court and meet face-to-face to discuss and agree on what needs to be sorted out.

    Find out more at Collaborative Family Law

  • A family solicitor

    A family solicitor is a lawyer who specialises in family law cases. They can act for you to negotiate with your child’s other parent or with their solicitor.

    If you do not want to take your case to court, look around for a solicitor who understands your wishes and believes in a constructive, non-confrontational approach.

    If you simply want to reach an agreement with your child’s other parent without going to court, a solicitor can help you think about what is important to you and how the best interests of your child can be taken into consideration.

    They can then discuss this with the other parent or their solicitor to try to reach an agreement without going to court. With this in mind, look for a solicitor who understands your values and preferences.

    Using a solicitor may be expensive so you will need to consider the cost, but a good family law solicitor will have years of experience and practice that they can use to advise and support you. They can help you think of things you may not have thought of.

    The Law Society of Northern Ireland has a directory of solicitors and you can select according to practice area (family, children or family, general) and location.