Exes are alternating periods at home with time in a rented flat: it can work well for children and save money – as long as they get along.
Under the agreement, both parents take turns living in the family home, often on a week-by-week basis, with the rest of the time spent in a rented flat nearby. The name comes from the similarity to birds taking it in turns to leave the chicks while they search for food, and the arrangement was also the focus of ITV’s four-part drama Our House last year.
Lawyers say that clients are coming to them in ever-increasing numbers with such plans because birdnesting – or nesting – is cheaper than maintaining two family-sized homes, and also provides stability for the couple’s children.
Helena*, an author in her early 50s, had a nesting arrangement with her former husband for two years to look after their two sons, now aged 18 and 14. “We were married for about 20 years. I came out to him as gay in winter 2021 and we began nesting in the summer,” she said. “We rented a flat and took it in turns to live there half the time. It made things much easier for the kids. It meant that they had the change of their parents splitting up but they didn’t also have the change of having to move between two houses.”
The agreement recently ended only because she is remarrying.
“It had its challenges but this made me see how valuable it was for the kids. I found it difficult living in two places, not knowing where my stuff was, and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve left something in the flat,’ and also thinking about food in both places. But it’s easier for an adult to do that sort of thing than a child.”
But she said that it’s not a given that the arrangement will be easy.
“To make it work, you have to have a good relationship with your ex. It would be impossible otherwise, because you’re seeing each other a lot, handing over the home or flat, and tidying up for each other.”
According to Elizabeth Fletcher, a member of the Law Society’s family law committee, one reason for the increasing popularity of the arrangement is the current economic climate.
“It all comes down to mortgage rates,” she said. “For your average forty something divorce with relatively young children, it can be tough to fund two 6% mortgages – there’s just not enough money to go round. So it’s either that or the leaving parent is in a bedsit. We’ll definitely be seeing more of this.”
Laura Stocks, a solicitor with Wright Hassall, echoed the assessment. “While a lot of people do it for consistency for the children in the early stages of separation, I think that it is now becoming necessary for a lot of families due to rising mortgage and rent costs,” she said.
Adam Freeman, 31, had a nesting agreement with his former partner, as they looked after their two children. They would each spend part of the week in the family home, and stay with relatives the rest of the time. “There was a period where we didn’t have anything in place and no one knew who was having the kids when, so it caused lots of arguments. But the nesting meant you could make plans – for the children and for yourself. It was a bit of structure,” he said.
“The more civil the partners are, the better, and the more [suitable] the arrangement’s going to be, and that’s absolutely the way forward for you both.”
Victoria Walker, a family solicitor with Moore Barlow, has had two “nesting” cases in the past year, having never had one before in 20 years of practicing. In her more recent case, she represented the husband in a professional couple. “His wife was desperate for some space, so she found rental accommodation and, on a weekly basis, one of them was in the family home, and one was out, then they would swap. I think it worked well for the children because they didn’t have to go anywhere – mum and dad would come and go,” she said.
She added that a nesting agreement would not be imposed by a court – it would only be decided by the two parties, and often for the short- or medium-term.
American author Beth Behrendt, whose book Nesting After Divorce will be published on 20 July, has been in such an arrangement with her ex-husband for the past nine years. “Our children had the usual struggles of growing up, but our divorce was never something that added to their stress, because their home life was consistent,” she told the Observer. “There were challenges for my ex and for me in the first couple of years, as the logistics and finances evolved, but I have never once regretted the decision.”
The existing family finances are often key to whether – and how – such a plan can work, said Ben Evans, a family law solicitor with Co-op Legal Services.
“Those people who are fortunate enough to have a second home that was previously rented out are more able to immediately propose this solution, but those who aren’t so fortunate will rent an alternative property on a 12-month contract because it’s not such a big commitment.”
*Name has been changed