Q: My children's father and I separated very recently. He has moved out of the home but hasn't got a permanent place yet. For now, he has the children stay with him at his parents on the weekend and I have them for the rest of the week. Mother's Day is coming up and I want to spend the day with the children and my own mother, but he is refusing to give up any of his time. We also have a family cat. It has stayed with me and the children, but my ex-husband has told me he wants the cat when he finds a permanent place. He probably looked after it more than me, but I can't bear the idea of giving her up.
A. Your first Mother's Day alone is likely to bring up a range of emotions. Adjusting to a shared care arrangement is a difficult time for you, your children and their father.
Spending the day with the children
Co-parenting involves a lot of compromise and collaboration. It is best to try reach a compromise together. Think about how he could make up that time with the children in other ways. He may be more willing to compromise if that time can be made up elsewhere. If you cannot agree, consider whether you could celebrate Mother's Day on a different day. It may not be the Sunday brunch you had hoped but don't let the day go uncelebrated.
Often Mother's Day means more to the children than the parents. If they are young, they may have spent time at school or kindergarten making you a card or gift to celebrate. It is important for both of you to listen to the children and always act in their best interests.
Once he has more secure accommodation, it would be good to agree on a more concrete parenting plan. A written plan would provide you both with certainty and avoid disagreements in the future. The plan should include what days the children will spend with each of you and how holidays, birthdays and other special days will work. It is best to get these decisions made early so you both know what to expect.
After you have made a parenting plan, you can ask the Family Court to make it into a consented Parenting Order. This step is only necessary if you think either party may not stick to the plan. The Court can enforce the agreement if either side stops complying with it.
What if you cannot agree?
If you are struggling to agree to a parenting plan, there are resources available to help you. You could reach out to a mediator to facilitate the discussion between you. This is often helpful if you are not getting along very well. You can ask a trusted friend or family member to act as mediator or you could attend mediation offered by a Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) provider. FDR providers include:
If you still cannot agree, you can instruct a lawyer to negotiate on your behalf and file court proceedings, if necessary. Where possible it is best to work things out between yourselves. Doing so avoids the significant costs and delay involved with court.
Who keeps the cat?
At the end of a marriage, couples must agree how to divide their relationship property. In New Zealand, relationship property must be divided 50/50 unless there is a prior agreement to divide property in a different way. Relationship property includes things such as the family home, joint bank accounts, Kiwisaver and family chattels. Family pets are considered to be a family chattel and therefore are relationship property.
Custody of your family cat will form part of your relationship property negotiations. In some circumstances, pets can continue to be jointly owned and spend time with both parties. However, this arrangement is much easier with a dog. Some cats will become unsettled moving between homes.
If you currently have possession of the cat, the chance that you will be able to keep it will be higher. This is the case for many chattels after separation. It is much harder to get something from the other party compared to holding on to it. Be aware that pets can sometimes be used as leverage. One party may "give up" custody of the cat in exchange for a greater share of relationship property.
If you cannot settle on a division of your relationship property between you, through lawyers, or at mediation, you may end up in the Family Court. The Court should only be used as a last resort because it will add significant cost and take a long time to reach a resolution.
Navigating a separation will be difficult. Remember that compromise and collaboration are the key to moving on as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
• Jeremy Sutton is a senior family lawyer, specialising in divorce cases where there are significant assets, including family trusts and complex business structures.