Parenting arrangements after separation

Content type
Research snapshot

October 2019



Over the past 10 years, the Australian Institute of Family Studies (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 (Kaspiew et al., 2009, 2015b) 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 (Kaspiew et al., 2015c) that involved 997 court files of matters initiated after the amendments and finalised by 30 November 2014.1 The evaluation also included a Survey of Separated Parents (Kaspiew et al., 2015a), which analysed survey data from a sample of about 6,000 separated parents who had been separated for 18 months on average.

The findings from these analyses are given in this report.

Key messages

  • About 3% of separated parents use courts as their main pathway to making parenting arrangements (based on a sample of about 6000 separated parents about 18 months after separation). These are predominantly families affected by family violence, child safety concerns and other complex issues.

  • Most (97%) separated parents do not go to court to decide their parenting arrangements, although 16% use family dispute resolution services or lawyers.

  • A study based on court files shows that in both court and non-court ordered arrangements, it is most common for children to spend the majority of their time with their mother and to see their father regularly.

  • In the small proportion of cases determined by a judge, 45% of court orders provide for sole parental responsibility by the mother, and 11% for sole parental responsibility by the father.

  • Orders for no contact with one parent are rare: 3% of all court orders.

  • There are two significant ways in which court orders and arrangements in the general separated population differ:

    • Court ordered arrangements are less likely to involve no contact between children and their father: only 3% of court orders, compared to 9% of the general separated population. 
    • Arrangements where children spend most of their time with their father are more common in orders made where litigation occurs (10–19%) than in the separated population generally (2%).


1. These files were from the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court of Western Australia.