Parenting apart

When you stop living with your child's other parent, you have important decisions to make about how you're going to care for the children. Parents who've never lived together but have children together also have to figure this out.

There are some important concepts for you to understand about your responsibilities as a parent. Provincial laws were changed in 2013 to get away from the idea of winning and losing that the words custody and access suggest. The new approach moves away from parents' "rights" over their children and focuses more on parents' responsibility for their children.

The change is more than just a replacement of words. It's a new way of looking at parenting after separation — one that encourages and respects each parent's role, even if the roles and responsibilities of each parent are different.

However, it can get confusing because federal and provincial laws now use different language to talk about parenting after separation, and the two laws are based on two different ways of thinking. The following chart describes the most important words and concepts you should know about. Click on the links in the left-hand column for more information. (Parental responsibilities, parenting time, and parenting arrangements all link to the Guardianship fact sheet.)

The Family Law Act (provincial law)

Words/terms What they mean


  • When a child's parents live together, they are both the child's guardians (or have guardianship).
  • When they separate, they both continue to be guardians until they agree to change that or a court orders a change.
  • Guardians have parental responsibilities and parenting time (see below).

Parental responsibilities

  • Guardians are responsible for making decisions about their children. These decisions are called "parental responsibilities." They can include day-to-day decisions as well as larger ones about health care, education, religious upbringing, extracurricular activities, etc.
  • After separation or divorce, guardians can share or divide parental responsibilities in whatever way works best for the child. You might decide this between you and record it in an agreement or ask the court to decide.

    Tip: For information on drafting a legally binding separation agreement, see our self-help guide How to write your own separation agreement.

Parenting time
  • The time that a guardian spends with the child.
  • During parenting time, a guardian is responsible for the care and supervision of the child and makes day-to-day decisions about the child.
  • Parenting time must be decided on the basis of the best interests of the child. This could mean that time is equally shared, that the child lives only with one guardian, or anything in between.
Parenting arrangements The arrangements made for parental responsibilities and parenting time in a court order or agreement between guardians. Parenting arrangements do not include contact with a child.
Contact with a child The time that a parent who isn't a guardian, or any other person who isn't a guardian, spends with the child.


The Divorce Act (federal law)

Words/terms What they mean


Where the child lives, who they live with, and the rights and responsibilities a guardian has for the child in his or her care.
Access The time children spend with the parent they don't usually live with. Other people can also apply for access to a child (including grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives).

Which terms should you use?

To sum up:

  • Family Law Act: guardianship, parental responsibilities, parenting time, parenting arrangements, and contact with a child
  • Divorce Act: custody and access

It can be confusing to figure out the correct terms to use. First of all, figure out whether the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act (or both) applies to your situation by referring to the chart below. Did you marry your spouse or not? What issues do you face? In this chart, "parenting" and "guardianship" both refer to the care of and time spent with the children. But guardianship also includes other aspects of guardianship like appointing a guardian under a will or by a person facing illness or disability.

If you're unmarried, only the Family Law Act applies to your situation. (The Family Law Act also applies if you're getting an order or enforcing an agreement in Provincial Court, not Supreme Court.) If you're married, you may have to do the following:

  • Apply under different laws for different orders. For example, you'd apply for a divorce under the Divorce Act but sort out the division of property or debts or get a family law protection order under the Family Law Act.
  • Choose between the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act for parenting and support issues. If you choose to go with the Family Law Act, you can get court orders or enforce an agreement in either Provincial Court or Supreme Court, but if you go with the Divorce Act, you can only do this in Supreme Court. See the fact sheet Do you need to go to Provincial (Family) Court or Supreme Court?


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