When a relationship ends, your responsibilities to the children of the relationship continue after you separate from the other parent. The division of childrearing responsibilities after separation is set out in a custody and access agreement - an important part of a separation agreement. A court can also make an order for custody and access.
A parent with custody of a child is responsible for the physical care of the child, including where the child lives and the daily decisions about how they are raised. You must have custody of a child to be involved in making the major decisions about a child's life such as their education, religion, and health care.
Access is the legal term for the right of the child and parent to spend time together. Although they may not have a role in making decisions, a parent with access has the right to receive information about the child's education, health, and well-being. Other family members, like grandparents, can also have the right to access. Usually a parent who does not have custody will have access to the child.
The right to access is also the child's right. The parent with custody can't refuse access to the other parent because of bad feelings between them or failure to pay child support.
Child support is money paid from one parent to another as their financial responsibility to the children of a relationship. The amount of support paid and the direction of payment is determined according to the territorial child support guidelines, and your custody and access arrangement.
- Joint Custody
Under joint custody both parents continue to be involved in the major decisions of the child's life. The child can live with only one parent, or may spend time living with both parents. Usually one parent has day-to-day care and control of the child. Both parents work together to make decisions about their child; one parent can't make major decisions about the child on their own.
- Sole Custody
Under sole custody, the child lives with one parent who makes the decisions about their life. The other parent usually has access to the child.
- Shared Custody
Under shared custody, the child lives with both parents roughly the same amount of time. For example, the child might spend two weeks with one parent, then two weeks with the other. This can work well if both parents live in the same community.
- Split Custody
Split custody occurs when there is more than one child, and some children live with one parent, while others live with the other. Each parent is responsible for the children in their care, and the other parent has access.
There are different kinds of access which may be granted to parents or other family members. Often a parent has the right to "reasonable and generous access", and the actual time, place and length of access is left to the parents to work out between them. Otherwise the court or an agreement may set out the time, place, and length of access. If there are concerns about the child's safety, a court may order that access be supervised or forbidden entirely.
The best custody and access arrangement for your children will be one that you and your spouse come up with by agreement. You will both be committed to it and since you both know your children, it will likely be what is best for the children as well.
If parents are unable to come to an agreement, you can reach a custody and access arrangement through mediation, negotiation by lawyers, or going to court. Going to court gives you the least amount of control over the final custody and access arrangement, but is the only option in situations where you cannot agree with the other parent. If you go to court, you should always have a lawyer to represent you.
As negotiating an agreement can take a long time, you can ask a judge for an interim custody order right away. An interim order will decide who has custody of the children until a final decision is made. Interim custody orders often become permanent because it is less disruptive for the children for them to remain in one place with one parent.
If your custody and access arrangement has been ordered by the court, it can only be altered if you both agree to the changes. If you don't agree, you have to go back to court and demonstrate that there has been a change to what is in the child's best interest, or the parent's ability to care for the child.