Families Change
Teen Guide to Separation & Divorce

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Parental Rights and Responsibilities

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When your parents live together, they are both responsible for taking care of you. When your parents stop living together, this might change.

For example, if your parents need to agree on where you will live or when you will spend time with each parent. If they can’t agree, then the court will ask a Mediator to help them sort it out.  If they still don’t agree, a court Magistrate or Judge may decide. The court can order “shared,” “allocated,” or “sole” parental rights and responsibilities.

  • Shared parental rights means that your parents must make decisions about your welfare together.
  • Allocated parental rights means that one parent is responsible for certain decisions (such as religious upbringing or health care issues). Or that parent has the final say if your parents can’t agree.
  • Sole parental rights means that one parent has the right to make all decisions about your welfare without the other parent. But the other parent will still have the responsibility for child support.

The judge can also order “shared primary residence” or “primary residence.”

  • Shared primary residence means that you will spend roughly equal time in each parent’s home. 
  • Primary residence means that you live with one parent most of the time.

If one parent has primary residence, the other parent usually has “parent-child contact” or “parenting time.” There are lots of different ways to arrange how you spend time with your other parent. It might be for a few hours a week, a few days a week, just weekends, during school vacations or another schedule that fits your family. If the parent lives far away, the plan can also include keeping in touch in other ways, like phone calls, e-mails, letters and online meetings. The times may be very specific—spelling out hours and days for visits—or very general and flexible.

Here are some things that a Judge will consider when making decisions about “parental rights and responsibilities:”

  • What will give you the fewest changes to deal with?
  • Are both of your parents healthy and responsible?
  • Can your parents communicate and make joint decisions without conflict?
  • What are your parents' plans for themselves and for you?
  • How close do you feel to each of your parents?
  • Do family and friends live near each of your parents?
  • What is your opinion? (The older you are, the more likely the court will consider your opinion.)

Want to learn more about the law? Pine Tree Legal posts more detailed information about the legal aspects of Divorce and Parental Rights.  

Q & A

My parents never married. Do they have to go through the same process that married parents do when they split up?

Parents who chose to live together without getting married don't have to get a divorce, because there is no marriage to end. But they do need to decide what will happen to their children and how they will divide their property.

I really feel like I need some help. Who should I ask?

There are lots of people around you who can help. Tell your parents, teacher, school counsellor, family doctor or another adult you trust.

If you aren't getting the help you think you need, keep asking until you get it.

Can I do anything to get my parents back together?

Most parents split up only after trying very hard to save their relationship. Some teens hope and believe that if they try to be on their very best behaviour, their parents will get back together.

However, this plan isn't likely to work, since their parents' decision to split up had nothing to do with them. Their decision to separate or divorce is usually final.

What is the difference between separation and divorce?

When two people have been living together and they decide not to live together anymore, they are separated. However, when married people separate, their marriage has not yet ended. They have to get a divorce to legally end a marriage. Common-law couples don't have to get a divorce, because there is no marriage to end.

If my parents divorce, will the same thing happen to me?

Many teens whose parents split up feel anxious about their own relationships in the future. But just because your parents split up doesn't mean the same thing will happen to you. What happens in your relationships will be up to you, not your parents!