Start Negotiating Holiday Schedules Now!
The most wonderful time of the year can become the most stressful for recently-separated parents.
Each year, family courts are flooded during the weeks leading up to Christmas, with parents who did not plan ahead or come to an agreed-upon parenting schedule for the holidays.
This is often an issue that arises between recently-separated couples who are still trying to amicably negotiate a separation agreement or families in the throes of litigation, who are waiting to obtain an order that dictates the custody and access schedule.
Keep in mind that more often than not, a holiday schedule supersedes regular parenting schedules, and most courts order that holidays get split evenly between separated parents.
If you have recently separated, whether amicably or not, it is important to try to resolve the holiday parenting schedule on your own or through your lawyer before bringing the issue to a court’s attention. Take into account and try to make accommodations for your family’s specific traditions over the holidays; particularly those that involve extended family.
If mom’s extended family, for example, celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve and the celebration traditionally includes members of the family traveling from afar to participate, the children can be with mom on December 24th and go to dad’s mid-day on December 25th.
If one particular day (Christmas day for example), is important to both parents, most families choose alternate years; meaning that the child(ren) spend Christmas day with mom in even years, dad in odd years.
Ideally, parents should be looking out for the best interests of their children at all times and should be able to communicate with one another and agree to a parenting schedule that works best for their children.
Beginning the discussion about sharing parenting time during the holidays in advance can help iron out potential kinks. This can go a long way towards reducing your legal fees, your stress, and most importantly, the stress on your child(ren). It can also help you begin to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship.
What do I do if my Ex won’t negotiate with me?
Sometimes, one parent reaches out to the other to discuss a parenting schedule over an upcoming holiday break but the other parent does not wish to participate in the discussion. In this situation, it is wise to consult with an experienced family lawyer to determine your best next steps.
Often, a dispute can be resolved when the spouse who does not want to negotiate receives a letter from a lawyer representing the other side.
If a push from a lawyer’s letter doesn’t work in resolving the conflict, the parent trying to negotiate the schedule can try to participate in mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.
The court should always be a last resort: it is expensive, time-consuming and stressful. It is always best to participate in parenting decisions if possible, rather than asking a judge to decide for you.
If a matter is already pending in court, the stage of litigation will determine whether a party is allowed to bring a motion to help determine a holiday access schedule. If such a motion is brought on an urgent basis, the court may or may not choose to hear it. There are no guarantees.
What if I have a Christmas Parenting Schedule but my Ex violates it?
If you have agreed upon a Christmas holiday parenting schedule, make sure that it is in writing and that both parties and both lawyers have signed it.
If your matter is in court and you can enter into minutes of settlement prior with enough time to turn it into a court order, you will be better off, in the event that the other party tries to violate the agreement.
If your ex tries to withhold your children and you have a written agreement or court order, try to be amicable at first: ask for your children back nicely via text or email.
If that fails and you are represented by a family lawyer, have your lawyer reach out to theirs. Finally, if nothing works, you may call the police to enforce the agreement or order.
Sometimes, court orders include police enforcement clauses that the authorities must follow. Other times, the police ensure that the child(ren) are with a custodial parent and are not in danger and advise that they cannot take any action.
At those times, the only remaining option is to bring an urgent motion in family court in the appropriate jurisdiction.
We Don’t Celebrate Christmas, What about Winter Break?
Winter break (and all school holidays) can be more nuanced if one or both parents have to work while the children are out of school. The courts are clear about the maximum contact principle: children should spend the maximum amount of time with each parent, so long as it is in their best interest to do so.
To that end, parents negotiating caretaking during winter break should remain reasonable and allow the children to enjoy their holiday in the company of both parents to the greatest extent possible.
For some, this means that the children spend one week with each parent. Others may continue their day-to-day schedule through the holidays.
Each family is unique in its structure and ability to care for children when they are out of school and parenting schedules should be negotiated to suit your family’s specific needs.