The recent news that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie are separating after 18 years of marriage hit the headlines not only because they are a high profile couple on the political world stage but because they intend to opt for a nesting pattern of co-parenting their three children from here on – an approach which is also growing in popularity on this side of the pond. In this article Kingsley Napley Family Law partners Connie Atkinson and Rachel Freeman explore the pros and cons of nesting arrangements for separating couples.
What is a nesting arrangement?
It is an arrangement which sees children remain in the family home while the parents take it in turns to leave and live elsewhere for short periods. A second, usually smaller, property is rented or purchased and each parent stays there when they are not in the family home with the children. In some families, where finances permit, each parent has their own separate property where they live when they are not in the family home.
What are the pros for children?
In the right circumstances, birdnesting gives children and parents time to adjust to a separation without significant changes being imposed immediately. Children often crave stability when parents decide to split and being able to remain in their home while navigating their feelings around their parents’ separation can be helpful.
If children remain in the family home, they can maintain their routines and local friendships and remain at the same school, clubs and activities. Children avoid having to shuttle between two homes and retain the familiar and safe space in their bedroom with all their belongings in one place.
What are the cons for children?
In reality birdnesting is only likely to work for a small number of families and in many cases only for a short period of time. Children need to adjust to the reality of their parents’ separation which includes a new home and bedroom with the other parent. In some cases the former family home is going to be sold at some point and so there will be a change of environment for children in any event. If birdnesting is attempted in unsuitable cases, it can risk creating (or sustaining) a toxic environment for children in what is supposed to be their safe space.
What are the pros for parents?
In the right circumstances birdnesting gives parents time to adjust to the separation too and avoid the need for numerous moves before buying a new home. It can also help remove the pressure of agreeing arrangements for the children immediately upon separation.
Parents might feel strongly about minimising disruption to their children, particularly if they themselves have unhappy memories of moving between two homes on divorce in their youth.
Birdnesting can save costs, avoiding the need, for example, to buy two sets of bedroom furniture, clothes, toys and books. It might offer a solution where the parents cannot afford two family homes upon divorce; with a nesting arrangement they only need one home big enough for a parent and the children and the other property can be much smaller.
What are the cons for parents?
In reality, birdnesting is unlikely to work long term. People move on at different paces following separation and it is not unusual for the parents’ views and priorities to take different directions as time moves on, which can make birdnesting more difficult. Birdnesting also becomes much more difficult if new partners are involved or when the separated spouses find a new relationship.
A downside of birdnesting is that it does not allow parents to move on and live independent lives. This is relevant in the context of the court’s usual approach on divorce which is to achieve a clean break between the parties where possible. Birdnesting means still running one, or even two, households together with all the costs, bills, food, cleaning, chores, maintenance and other admin that that entails. There are likely to be constant reminders of a former partner, seeing their belongings around or evidence of their daily routine and habits. Depending on the size of the property, parents might also have to use the same bedroom and bathroom as their former partner which can feel uncomfortable.
Birdnesting requires a lot of communication and organisation, particularly at the beginning when emotions can be very raw.
What practical tips might help to make nesting work?
- Explore whether birdnesting will work by discussing your intentions and the practicalities in an appropriate forum such as mediation.
- Parents need to have maintained a positive relationship on separation and be good at communicating with one another.
- Agree a set of household rules and responsibilities, including how to deal with food shopping, bills, repairs, and who else can be in the home.
- Have regular meetings to consider what is working well with the nesting arrangement and whether anything needs to be changed.
- Employ a cleaner, especially for handover days.
- Consider how personal belongings and communications will be dealt with to ensure each parent can maintain some privacy.
According to recent research by Coop Legal Services some 11% of divorced or separated parents in the UK have tried birdnesting and in the current economic climate it may well appeal to more separating couples, to avoid the costs of running two homes large enough for the children or if the family home cannot be sold. Every family is different and the family’s individual circumstances and dynamics will dictate whether birdnesting works for the parents and their children and for the long or short term.
About Connie Atkinson and Rachel Freeman
Connie is a Partner in the family team and has experience of dealing with all aspects of private family work relating to both finances and children. She is recognised as a Rising Star Legal 500 UK for Family: Mediation and ranked in Chambers UK as up and coming in Family/Matrimonial. Connie also won family lawyer of the year and national private client lawyer of the year at the Private Client Modern Law Awards 2023.
Rachel is a partner in Kingsley Napley’s family and divorce team. She specialises in dealing with financial settlements and the arrangements for children arising upon the breakdown of a relationship. Rachel is recognised in the Legal 500 and the Citywealth Leaders and Powerwomen Leaders lists.