What are the most common parenting arrangements after separation?

11 November 2019

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) just issued a report on parenting arrangements. It says that 3% of separated parents go to court, 97% don’t go to court and 10% use family dispute resolution services to help them. It also tells us a lot about the types parenting arrangements that are occurring.

Over the past 10 years, the AIFS has conducted multiple large-scale studies of post-separation parenting outcomes, including surveys involving nationally representative samples of separated parents.

Two multi-method studies evaluated:

  • the situation before and after the 2006 amendments to the Family Law Act 1975
  • the situation before and after the 2012 amendments to the Family Law Act 1975.

The evaluation of the 2012 amendments included an analysis of court outcomes that involved 997 court files of matters initiated after the amendments and finalised by 30 November 2014. The evaluation also included a Survey of Separated Parents, which analysed survey data from a sample of about 6,000 separated parents who had been separated for 18 months on average.

What are the most common parenting arrangements after separation?

AIFS’ research shows that there is considerable variation in the ways that families arrange their children’s care after separation. Issues such as the children’s age and the parents’ working patterns play a significant role in decision making, i.e.:

  • The mother has sole responsibility in 27% of cases
  • The mother has the majority care 46% of cases
  • The mother and father shared care-time in 21% of cases
  • The father has the majority care in 3% of cases
  • The father has sole responsibility in 2% of cases.

The survey of Separated Parents 2014 found that the most common arrangement about 18 months after separation is for children to live with their mother most nights (at least 66% of nights in a year).

The next most common arrangement (18% of cases) is for children to spend all of their nights with their mother and see their father in the daytime only. Earlier research shows this is particularly common for children under two years of age.

In 21% of cases, care time was substantially shared between parents (i.e. the child spending between 35% and 65% of nights in a year with the mother/father). Most shared-time arrangements involved more time with the mother. Arrangements for equal time occurred in less than 10% of cases.

It is fairly uncommon (9% of cases) for children to have no contact with their father.

Is it common for parents to go to court for orders about parenting?

Most parents (97%) don’t go to court: they make arrangements between themselves.

Around 10% of parents use family dispute resolution as the main way to sort out parenting arrangements.

When parents do go to court, what are the outcomes?

There are three ways that court orders are made:

  • Adjudicated matters – This is where a judge hears the evidence and makes a decision. These are the least common cases, and the ones that are most likely to have complex facts and evidence.
  • Consent after litigation – This occurs when a case starts but the parents make an agreement before a trial. These are also likely to have complex facts.
  • Pure consent – The third and most common route to a court order is when the parents make an agreement between themselves through a family dispute resolution practitioner or through lawyers, and then formalise the agreement by applying for consent orders. These cases are less likely to have problems such as family violence and safety concerns than the other two.

Orders for parental responsibility

Adjudicated matters

Orders for both parents to share parental responsibility are least likely to be made when a matter is decided by a judge: 40% of these cases had these orders. Orders for mothers to have sole parental responsibility were made for 45% of children; fathers were given sole responsibility for 11% of children.

Consent after litigation

In cases that start a litigation pathway but resolve before judgment, orders for shared parental responsibility are much more common, applying to 94% of children. Orders for sole parental responsibility are much less common: for mothers for 4% of children and for fathers for 2% of children.

Pure consent

Shared parental responsibility outcomes are the most common outcome when the parents reach agreement themselves. In the pure consent sample, these orders applied to 92% of children. Orders for sole parental responsibility were made for mothers for 4% of children and for fathers for 3% of children.

Care-time arrangements

Adjudicated matters

Most children (64%) subject to orders were living mainly with their mother and spending less than 35% of nights with their father. Orders for shared care time were made for 17% of children.

In the adjudicated sample, 19% of children were to “live with” their father and spend less than 35% of nights with their mother. It is notable that these sort of arrangements are far more likely to occur when there is a court intervention than when parents sort things out themselves.

Consent after litigation

Where parents had agreed without their matters actually being determined by the judge, but after litigation commenced, 75% of children had orders that the child live with their mother and spend less than 35% of nights with their father.

A further 15% of children had shared care-time arrangements and 10% had arrangements where they lived with their father and spent less than 35% of nights with their mother.

Pure consent

In cases where parents agreed without litigation, orders for children to spend most of their time with their mother applied to 64% of children. Orders for shared care time were more common in this group than in the other two, applying to 33% of children. Orders for children to live mainly with their father and spend less than 35% of their nights with their mother applied to 4% of children.

Is it common for a court to order that a child have no contact with one of their parents?

It is very uncommon for orders of no contact to be made. In all the cases of court orders in the three categories, only 3% of children had orders where they had no contact with their father and 0.2% had orders where they had no contact with their mother.

Where courts are concerned about child safety, they can make orders for contact to be supervised, either by a relative or friend or at a centre run by an organisation that provides this service. Supervised time arrangements applied to 4% of children.

Get advice:

Everyone’s situation is different and, therefore, it is important that you obtain legal advice for your own individual circumstances sooner rather than later. For that reason, we encourage you to come and see our one of our friendly family lawyers.


Parenting arrangements after separation, AIFS, Research summary— October 2019


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