Dad with baby

Elternzeit 101 – What It Is and How to Apply For It

By Lisa H, Jon H &

Last updated on 25 January 2024

One of the main considerations when preparing for your baby’s birth is how much time you’re going to take off and how you will allocate the available leave between the parents.

This brings us right to the topic of Elternzeit – literally “parent time.” What is it? How and when should you apply for it? What about monetary benefits? We’ll discuss all of that in this article.

This article was written in collaboration with Elodie Roux Heineck, who is the founder of Baby in Berlin, offering expert help with German baby paperwork for international families. Jon Heinrich, a specialist lawyer for labor law in Berlin contributed to the article. His specialty is ​​English-language advice to international employees in the Berlin start-up scene.

What is Elternzeit?

Elternzeit refers to the parental leave (time off) that any (employed) parent can take. Elternzeit can be up to three years long, during which time you can request to be released by your employer.

During Elterngeld you can choose to not work at all or part-time up to 32 hours a week*. For a portion of this time, you can claim Elterngeld (monetary parental benefits).

(If you are self-employed, Elternzeit does not apply to you but you can still receive Elterngeld.)

*if you have been with your company for at least six monhs and the comoany ahs at least 15 employees.

What do I need to do to register for Elternzeit?

If you decide to take Elternzeit in the first three years of your child’s life, you only need to inform your employer in a timely fashion (more below) – your employer cannot refuse your request. You can split your Elternzeit up into up to two or three stretches of time (or more if your employer agrees).

If you want to take part of your Elternzeit between age 3 and 9 of your child, your employer does need to agree. During this period, you can only take a maximum of 24 months of Elternzeit.

Do I need to take both Elterngeld and Elternzeit?

No, you don’t have to apply for Elterngeld if you’re taking Elternzeit. However, if you are not working while on Elternzeit, you will not receive any monetary support unless you apply for Elterngeld.

When do I need to apply for Elternzeit?

If taking Elternzeit before the child’s 3rd birthday, you need to announce this to your employer at least 7 weeks before the start of the Elternzeit. 

  • If you want to start your Elternzeit from the day of your child’s birth, then you need to apply at least 7 weeks before the estimated due date 

  • For mothers who want to start their Elternzeit after the 8 weeks of postpartum maternity protection (Mutterschutz), you can apply within a week of your child’s birth

If you’re taking Elternzeit between the 3rd and 9th birthday of your child, you have to apply at least 13 weeks before the start date of your Elternzeit.

Can I change my Elternzeit period after having already applied for it??

The prior determination of the parental leave period is binding for both sides - i.e. employee and employer - during the first two years of the child's life. This means that an extension or shortening of parental leave can only happen by mutual agreement. 

Only in cases of extreme hardship (the law refers to the occurrence of serious illness, severe disability or death of a parent or child, or if the parents' economic existence is significantly endangered after taking parental leave) can parental leave in this case be unilaterally shortened or extended by the employee. 

It should therefore be carefully considered at the beginning of parental leave for which periods of time parental leave is to be taken. Subsequently - during the first two years of your child's life - a change is only possible with the employer's consent.

How do I apply for Elternzeit?

You have to register your parental leave with your employer in writing, which means on a signed piece of paper. You cannot do so by telephone, e-mail or via social media.

Tip: Have your employer confirm that you have registered your parental leave. (Your employer is obliged to do so.) The confirmation should contain information on the start and end date as well as the date of when you registered for your parental leave.

If you register parental leave before your child's 3rd birthday, you have to commit to the periods for which you intend to take parental leave over the next two years. If you do not register for parental leave for part of the next two years, you will forgo the possibility of taking further parental leave in these two years.

A template to inform your employer will follow.

Return to work after Elternzeit

After your parental leave, you can return to your old job unless otherwise stated in your employment contract.

Note that if your employment contract allows for it, your employer may also assign you to another job or another area of responsibility. This depends on the terms of your employment contract. However, your employer is not allowed to pay you less as a result of being transferred to another job or of changing your area of responsibility.

Also note that fixed-term employment contracts are not normally extended by parental leave, but do check your contract. You may also like to check out our article "Your Return to Work After Elternzeit – The Legal Perspective."

Vacation accrual during Elternzeit

Check your contract to see if you will accrue vacation days during Elternzeit.

Your employer has the right to decrease your accrued vacation days by 1/12 for every full month of Elternzeit taken. If so, they have to state their intent in the confirmation letter for your Elternzeit.

You will accrue full vacation days for the months during which you have partially worked (even for just one day), so it may be beneficial not to start your Elternzeit on the first of the month if it can be avoided.

What are the benefits of going on (unpaid) Elternzeit?

You might be wondering why parents might want to take Elternzeit if they cannot receive Elterngeld (anymore).

Here’s why this may be a good idea:

During parental leave, your employer can only terminate your employment in exceptional cases. You have special protection against dismissal as soon as you register your parental leave, but no earlier than 1 week before the start of the registration period.

So if you are concerned about the security of your job or the “health” of the business or overall industry, this is a good way to secure your job and gain peace of mind in a perfectly legal way.

However, you will need to reduce your hour to a maximum of 32 hours per week, on average.

(Your registration period is 8 weeks before the start of the parental leave you take before your child's 3rd birthday. If you’re taking Elternzeit from your child's 3rd birthday to the day before your child's 8th birthday, the special protection against dismissal kicks in 14 weeks before the start of the parental leave.)

Other scenarios

With your employer’s approval, you can work up to 32 hours part-time for a different employer or on a freelance basis while on Elternzeit (this is for parents of children born after August 2021. For children born before then, it is a maximum of 30 hours per week).

This can be a secure way of testing the waters for a change of career or company while keeping open the option of returning to your old job after Elternzeit. 

Want to learn more or start filling out the forms?

If you'd like to learn more, check out Elodie's comprehensive online course called “Elterngeld & Co.” Kietzee members receive a 10% discount, which you can find in the “Discounts” section of your dashboard. 

Elodie also offers 1-on-1 assistance with Elternzeit and Elterngeld.

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