The last 18 months have seen a dramatic increase in home-based and flexible working whilst Covid-related restrictions have prevented people from going into the workplace. Looking ahead, for many, working flexibly (including working from home, flexible start and finish times and part-time hours) looks set to continue post the lifting of Covid restrictions. In the main, people have embraced having more control over their time and more family time, less commuting and a better work life balance.
For working parents, flexible working can ease juggling caring commitments alongside work and allow for more school drop-offs and fewer missed bath times! But what if a divorced or separated parent, yearning for a lifestyle change or perhaps for financial reasons, decides they want to relocate, away from where the other parent lives? They may need to overcome significant obstacles, particularly if there are young children involved and careful consideration will need to be given to the implications of the proposed relocation for the children involved and for the other parent.
When a relocation becomes a possibility, conflicts may naturally arise between separated parents in relation to:
- Changing arrangements: If a parent will be relocating with a child, a change of school may be necessary as may a change in previously agreed or court-ordered contact arrangements. The non-relocating parent could have strong objections to proposed changes – if, for example, they fear that a child will struggle to settle into a new school.
The relocating parent wishing to move a child to a new school will require the agreement of the non-relocating parent, which may not be forthcoming if there are concerns that such a move will not be in the child’s best interests.
Existing contact arrangements may be unsustainable too. These may need to change significantly because of distance and longer travel times. Mid-week contact for the non-resident parent could be threatened and, if it is the non-resident parent wishing to relocate, the resident parent may lose out on help with childcare during the working week. If a parent has concerns about the upheaval for a child of proposed new contact arrangements these may prove particularly difficult to agree.
- Finances: Whilst a move away from a big city may bring with it the promise of financial benefits for the relocating parent – perhaps a lower cost of living, for example – the relocation may result in additional, significant costs.
For example, if the non-relocating parent is the resident parent and will be losing help with childcare, they may have no choice but to get help (possibly an after-school nanny or additional nursery hours).
Even if the relocating parent is the resident parent, there may be regular travel costs for the other parent when they travel to handover a child and understandably costs of this sort may lead to resentment and cause financial difficulty.
- Wellbeing concerns: A non-relocating parent may have reservations about a relocation if they think it is likely to have a negative impact on a child’s wellbeing or on their own wellbeing. This may be so if the non-relocating parent is expected to share the ferrying of children from one parent’s home to the other for periods of contact.
For example, a parent may decide that they are no longer content to share handover journeys equally with the other parent because what was a 30-minute drive to the other parent’s home is now a 2-hour drive and causes them real practical difficulties, eats into their own weekend and perhaps impinges on a life they are building with a new partner. A non-relocating parent may feel that a move away from a familiar area on the back of the Covid-related uncertainties and anxieties of the last 18 months would be unfair to a child.
So how might a separated parent wishing to relocate seek to overcome these sorts of obstacles to prevent a potentially life-affirming step going sour? My tips are:
- Be practical: If you are the parent wishing to relocate think about how proposed new arrangements would work in practice.
For example, perhaps you are set on moving away from city life but would be willing to consider a number of different locations – some of which may be more convenient than others for the other parent. If you can be flexible, think about how well-connected competing locations are and how this is likely to impact on handover arrangements. Somewhere close to a train station or main road network is likely to make for an easier transition for everyone.
If you are the resident parent, think about whether you will be able to reassure the other parent that the schools and amenities in the area to which you want to move will meet the needs of each child relocating.
- Approach is key: Approach can make all the difference. Think carefully about when and how you broach your proposed relocation with your co-parent. Acknowledge the impact that the move could have on them, your children and others (including step-siblings and grandparents) and try to understand their point of view.
Don’t simply present the proposal as a fait accompli; be prepared to give your ex-partner time to come to terms with the possibility of the relocation before expecting them to be ready to have detailed discussions. They may feel as though they have only just got through the last year and a half of juggling work commitments with lockdown and home schooling which may make the proposed relocation more daunting.
Try to keep the best interests of the children always firmly in mind and to anchor discussions and negotiations to these.
- Compromise is key!: Be prepared to make compromises and give concessions. Doing so could provide the other parent with the reassurance they need to agree to new arrangements so that court proceedings can be avoided.
Try to get to the bottom of your co-parent’s biggest concerns and then think creatively about how these might be allayed. You could offer to do the greater share of the travel between homes or to contribute to travel costs or additional childcare costs. If your co-parent is worried about less frequent contact with children, you could suggest extra video calls or offer them a greater share of holiday time with the children.
- Take specialist advice: Take early advice from a specialist family lawyer. Go through in detail your relocation plans and proposed changes to contact arrangements and school choices. They will be able to sense-check your plans and advise as to how a court would be likely to approach your relocation proposals and deal with points of disagreement.
Involving a specialist solicitor needn’t be expensive. Family law solicitors generally charge on a time spent basis and it may be that, after some initial advice and input, you will feel better-equipped and able to agree matters directly with your co-parent (rather than channelling all communications through solicitors).
- Consider alternative ways to resolve disputes: If it becomes apparent that you will struggle to agree changing the relocation and related arrangements between the two of you, think carefully about how you might be able to resolve matters outside of court proceedings. There are different methods of dispute resolution.
You could involve a specialist mediator to help the two of you reach an agreement (possibly with you each taking advice from a solicitor in the background). Or the two of you could together appoint an arbitrator to determine particular issues. The latter could work well if some aspects of the relocation are agreed but others are proving trickier.
It may also be helpful for you and your ex-partner to consult with a jointly chosen independent social worker who may be able to offer valuable insight and guidance in relation to the impact of changing arrangements on children involved.
If ultimately you and your co-parent are unable to resolve matters between you, one of you may decide to involve the court. Resolving relocation-related issues outside of the court process is however likely to save you both money, emotional trauma and time (particularly given the long delays in the court process as a result of the coronavirus epidemic) – and also having an outcome imposed by the court.