What is shared parental leave?

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The right to shared parental leave started in December 2014, ready for children that were born or placed for adoption from 5th April 2015 onwards.

Previously, parental leave worked as follows:

  • New fathers were entitled to two weeks of paid paternity leave, which was the standard.
  • New mothers were required to take two weeks of paid leave after their baby’s birth.
  • Mothers were entitled to take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 weeks of which would be paid.

Now, here’s how it works:

  • New fathers are still entitled to their two weeks of paid paternity leave.
  • New mothers still get their two weeks of paid maternity leave.
  • Mothers can swap their remaining maternity leave for shared parental leave, if that’s what works best for the family. They don’t have to do this, and can still use their maternity leave in the way that it’s always been available. Shared parental leave can be started by second partner whilst the mother is still on her maternity leave, but she’ll be required to give advance notice that she’s trading some of her remaining leave in. A mother has six weeks to change her mind if she’s planned to trade her maternity leave for shared parental leave, but later decides that she wants to use standard maternity leave.
  • Up to 50 weeks of parental leave are available. 37 of these weeks are paid. Parents can share these weeks as they see fit.
  • Parents can choose to share their leave at separate times, to get a total of up to 50 weeks at home with their little one, or they can ‘double up’ to take time off together as a family.
  • Parents can choose to return to work, then take their remaining leave at a later date.

Who do the new parental leave rights apply to?

The new rights are for parents of newborn or newly adopted children. They include couples that are bringing up a new baby, even if one of the partners in the couple is not the baby’s biological parent. So, a stepmother or stepfather can share parental leave with the baby’s biological mum or dad.

  • One parent must have at least 26 weeks of service with their current employer, in order to qualify. This must have been accrued before the 25th week of pregnancy (or, before the week of an adoption match being made).
  • The other parent must have completed at least 26 weeks of paid employment or self-employment within the 66 weeks that lead up to the baby’s due date. This parent also needs to have earned at least £30 a week, for at least 13 of those 66.

It’s possible for a couple to qualify even if one parent is not in work at the time of the birth.

How does shared parental leave work?

The baby’s parents (who we’ll call the ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ throughout our example, though the same also applies to single-sex couples), each get two weeks of paid leave. This is the standard maternity leave and paternity leave. The baby’s mum can then take her maternity leave for as long as she wants, before trading it in for shared parental leave, or she can immediately trade it for shared parental leave after her first two weeks have finished.

The mum might, for example, take 17 weeks of maternity leave including the two initial weeks. This means that she’s used up 15 weeks of her additional allowance. She can then trade the remaining maternity leave for shared parental leave, totalling 35 weeks.

The mum and dad can then split the 35 weeks of parental leave between them, in agreement with their respective employers. They might take 17 weeks off work together, or the dad might take 25 weeks of leave before the mum takes the remaining 10. Alternatively, they might take 10 weeks off together, and then one parent might take the remaining 15.

Are there restrictions for shared parental leave?

A parent needs to give their employer at least eight weeks’ notice, before their leave begins.

Shared parental leave can be taken in up to three blocks per parent. Employers might agree to allow it to be taken in more than three blocks, but this is at the employer’s discretion. An employer is also legally able to refuse the booking of separate blocks of leave, if it’s inconvenient for them. If that happens, the parent can take all of their leave in one go. Employers cannot refuse a request for parental leave that is taken all in one go.

Shared parental leave will need to be taken during the child’s first year.

Are there further benefits to shared parental leave?

Traditional maternity leave is all taken in one go. Once a mother has finished her leave, she goes back to work permanently. Since shared parental leave is more flexible, allowing up to three separate blocks of time off, a mum might choose to trade her maternity leave even if her partner has no intention of using the allowance. She can then take shorter blocks of leave, returning to work in between, bearing in mind that she needs to take all of the leave that she’s planning before her son or daughter’s first birthday.

Some families might choose to convert 10 weeks of maternity leave to shared parental leave, so that the mother has a shorter period of time off work and the father can be around for the baby’s first few months.

How much is paid for shared parental leave?

For shared parental leave, an employee is paid the lower of these two figures:

  • 90% of their average weekly earnings.
  • £139.58 per week.

This is the same amount as statutory maternity pay. The difference is that with SMP, the first 6 weeks come with no cap on earnings. The mother is paid 90% of their average weekly income, with no maximum limit. With the pay for parental leave, even if she were earning more than £139.58 per week, this would still be the most that she’d receive.

Are there extra things to consider?

If shared parental leave is taken, both partners will need to factor in how much money is to be made overall. If one partner is on a significantly higher income, it’s important to check that the family can manage on the lower income when the higher earning partner is off work.

KIT (Keeping in Touch) days are available to mothers on maternity leave. With shared parental leave, these are called SPLIT days. Employees can take up to 20 SPLIT days, in any configuration, without forfeiting their parental leave pay. SPLIT days are typically used by parents to ease themselves back into work slowly, or to try out a new working schedule.

Shared parental leave is not right for everyone. In fact, studies have found that a vast majority of families are not taking up the offer. Often, parents claim that this is due to financial concerns, or worries about a negative impact on career progression. Estimated figures suggest that between 2% and 8% of families are making use of shared leave.

Of course, shared parental leave is still relatively new. A change in public perception and attitude will take time. What’s important, at this stage, is that employers and employees understand what’s on offer and that all know their rights and responsibilities.

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