What is co-parenting?
There are two main forms of co-parenting:
Platonic co-parenting a child with another individual or couple.
Co-parenting a child with a former partner or spouse.
Platonic co-parenting arrangements enable people to conceive a child through assisted conception and parent a child together without the need for an intimate personal relationship. These arrangements can include friends as well as those who meet online through co-parenting and modern family building websites.
Platonic co-parenting is a flexible option for family building. It can take a number of different forms, often encompassing 2 – 4 adults, including: a single woman and a single man, a single woman and a gay couple, a lesbian couple and a single man, a lesbian couple and a gay couple, a single man and a lesbian couple. A co-parent is different from a known donor, playing a more active and involved role in the child’s life. A co-parent does not have to be a biological parent of the child, making it a flexible family building option for same-sex couples and those conceiving with donor gametes.
Co-parenting with a former partner or spouse
Co-parenting a child with a former partner or spouse is different from platonic co-parenting. It often follows separation, divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership bringing an intimate personal relationship to an end.
The benefits of co-parenting
Co-parenting can bring many benefits and rewards. It can enable a single or gay man to become a father and enjoy an involved role in a child’s life that extends beyond the role of a sperm donor. It can also enable a single woman or lesbian couple to become parents and bring a male figure into their child’s life.
Co-parents can enrich the life of the child, spending quality time with him or her and building engaged family and friendship networks. Co-parents can also provide valuable support and encouragement to each other along the parenting journey.
Who are the legal parents?
There is no international harmonization of fertility law. Each jurisdiction takes its own approach and sets its own law and policy.
Acquisition of legal parentage can create complex legal issues in co-parenting arrangements, particularly where multiple co-parents and assisted reproduction are involved. Attribution of legal parenthood for a child can depend upon a range of factors including: geographical location and state law, method of conception, marital status and consent to assisted conception. It does not always follow that a biological parent will become a child’s legal parent.
The conferral of legal parentage for a child can have important legal implications in relation to citizenship, nationality and immigration arrangements, a child’s legal identity, financial responsibility for a child, a child’s inheritance rights, birth certificates and the ability to bring or defend legal proceedings in respect of a child.
This makes it important for co-parents to understand and agree at the outset who will be the child’s legal parents and how legal parentage will operate in practice.
Decision making for the child
In any co-parenting arrangement, it is also important to understand and agree who will acquire legal decision making responsibilities for the child and what this means for their upbringing. This encompasses legal rights to make (or share) decisions to secure a child’s welfare, including consent to medical treatment and immunisations, relocation, travel and education arrangements.
It is also important for co-parents to understand what legal options are open to them in the event they cannot agree a particular issue for their child.
Care and financial arrangements
Co-parents should discuss and agree from the start how they intend to care for the child and share parenting time. Issues and needs will change and evolve according to the child’s age and wishes and can be influenced by health and educational issues as well. Adult work schedules can also be relevant, particularly if they involve travel or shift work. Generally speaking, the greater the number of people involved in the day-to-day care of the child, the harder everyone will need to work to manage the mechanics of this.
Care and thought should be taken to successfully manage key events including the child’s birthday, Christmas, Easter and family holidays. This can require time, patience and compromise between co-parents and forward-planning to minimise disagreements and disputes. Financial arrangements, both in capital and income terms, should also be discussed and agreed in relation to any co-parenting agreement. It can be costly to raise a child and it can impact on a co-parent’s work and career progression.
It is therefore advisable for co-parents to understand their care and financial responsibilities for the child in law and what their options are in the event circumstances change (e.g. illness, incapacity and redundancy) or there is disagreement over arrangements for the child.
Do I need legal advice and a written co-parenting agreement?
It is advisable for all parties of a co-parenting arrangement to obtain tailored specialist legal advice at the outset and enter into a bespoke written co-parenting agreement.
If there is an international element to the co-parenting arrangement, all parties should obtain specialist legal advice in each relevant jurisdiction and ensure issues are effectively coordinated to minimize international conflicts of law and unintended legal and practical outcomes.
A written co-parenting agreement has a number of functions. It can help everyone understand and navigate the legal issues and outcomes (including legal status, rights and risks). It can be a tool to aid communication between the parties, manage expectations and wishes and map out a legal action plan.
A written co-parenting agreement can also be of important evidential use in the event of a subsequent dispute and court proceedings, particularly if it has been drafted by a legal expert and the parties received independent legal advice in relation to its terms, meaning and effect.
The preparation of a bespoke written co-parenting agreement requires understanding, consideration and careful management of a range of complex legal and practical issues under fertility and family law including: conception arrangements, legal parenthood, legal decision-making for the child, arrangements for the child’s care and upbringing, financial provision for the child and dispute management. This makes it important to obtain expert legal advice and guidance on the terms, meaning and effect of a written co-parenting agreement in the short, medium and longer term in each individual case.
It is important to regularly review and re-work arrangements if issues arise in a co-parenting context. It can be helpful to pre-empt situations and take proactive steps to prevent little things turning into major problems. Try to tackle sensitive issues with care and forethought. Think about choice of language and timing of any tricky discussions to minimise knee-jerk reactions and try to avoid blaming a co-parent and instead find viable solutions.
A co-parenting dispute can raise complex legal, financial, emotional and practical issues. Disputes can be wide ranging. They can include mismatched understanding and expectations about the legal status and role of each co-parent in the child’s life. They can concern a dispute about arrangements for the care and upbringing of a child or financial provision for a child. A dispute can also be triggered if there is a sudden or unexpected change in a co-parent’s circumstances (e.g. if they form a new relationship, marry, relocate) or their perspectives alter in life.
Specialist tailored legal advice in individual cases and preparation of a bespoke written co-parenting agreement at the outset can help maximize a successful outcome and minimize the risk of future legal uncertainty, difficulties and disputes.
Co-parents also need to understand what legal options are open to them in the event they are struggling or cannot resolve matters, including legal negotiation, mediation and court proceedings, as well as the implications. Life can throw up all sorts of unexpected issues and the parenting journey will inevitably have its ups and downs over time. The risk factor is often multiplied in a co-parenting context and co-parents need to work hard to identify, understand and work through issues. Specialist advice from an expert lawyer at an early stage can make a big difference in tackling challenging issues and helping co-parents to reach a workable solution.
The importance of a Will
Like any parent, a co-parent should ensure they put in place a Will to help provide for and protect their child. This should stipulate what happens to any inheritance and depending upon the situation appoint trustees to manage financial resources responsibly for the child’s benefit until he or she reaches majority.
Depending upon the basis of the co-parenting arrangement, a co-parent may also wish to appoint legal guardians to care for their child in the event of their death. However, appointment of legal guardians can raise complex legal issues, making it important to seek expert legal advice and guidance.
Done well, a co-parenting arrangement can be life-affirming and bring about a much wanted child and modern family.
This article only provides generic information. It does not constitute the provision of specialist, bespoke, comprehensive or specific legal advice in individual cases.