by David Jones, Family Law Attorney and Partner, GSJones Law Group, P.S.
For divorced and separated parents Christmas time can be very difficult, especially the children. Holiday child custody issues add to the holiday craziness.
The holiday season can be crazy anyway, but when you add in the emotion of the parents wanting to spend quality time with their children, it can be overwhelming. The parents must remember it is also a very emotional time for the children. It can be all the more significant for young children of recently-separated parents.
First year after separation: Decrease children’s anxiety.
If it is the first Christmas since the separation and the children are, say 12 or under, know that the children will be unsure what will happen during the holidays. Thus, they will be filled with anxiety about the holidays. In some cases, they may even be blaming themselves for the break-up. Especially at this time of year, traditionally full of joy and family, the child may feel guilty about the separation of the family.
There are as many holiday scenarios as there are families. Here are some general guidelines. The younger the child and the more recent the break, the more important these guidelines become.
- Shield children from details of divorce.
- Don’t involve children in custody discussions.
- Don’t ask children what they want.
- Put the children’s best interests above your own.
- Try to divide time equitably with your ex, given the situation
- If disagreements arise about child custody that remain unresolved, make accommodations necessary with your ex and consult your custody attorney in the new year about resolving the matter for the future.
Note for parents that don’t celebrate Christmas
The specific examples in this guide focus on families that celebrate Christmas. All families will find that the general guidelines outlined above will be helpful. Families with more than one faith tradition may find it more difficult to iron out the difficulties on the fly. It is especially important in multi faith environments to work out details in advance.
Shield children from details of the divorce and negotiations over custody
In all cases, parents should not discuss the divorce action with their children. That guideline in more important during the holidays. The best the parents can do is work together to put the children first and schedule time with both parents to spend with the children without involving the children in the discussions or asking them what they want to do.
If there are no reasons to restrict anyone’s visits during the holiday season, it is best to equalize the time each parent is spending with the children. Of course for young children. the golden time is Christmas morning. This time should be alternated on an odd/even basis with the children.
In parenting plans, when there are no reasons to restrict parents and where they live close to one another, I advocate dividing the winter break for school age children. I encourage my clients to propose that one parent gets the first half of winter break starting the day school lets out. Set the transfer time for Christmas Day at around 2:00 pm.
The other parent returns the day before the children go back to school, if they are the non-custodial parent. This plan has the advantage of each parent having part of Christmas with one getting the golden time in the morning and the other getting the children for Christmas Dinner.
While one parent will get both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, the offset is that the other parent gets the longer period of time before school starts. Each year the parents alternate having the child first. I also advise that the parent who is not getting Christmas Eve and Christmas morning gets Thanksgiving for that year from Wednesday to Sunday.
Tweaks for holiday child custody issues
Family traditions may require changes to this simple plan. Maybe one parent’s family celebrates Christmas with a get together every Christmas Eve or Christmas Eve service is important. The parent with the Christmas Eve tradition may keep the children until late on the 24th with the other parent keeping the children for all of Christmas Day.
The parents without the children on Christmas morning may also decide to do gift exchange on the 26th.
The parents can also count out the days on winter break and make the exchange on the middle day at a certain time.
Solving distance problems
For short distances, say Kitsap County to Spokane, I still encourage my clients to split winter break on an odd/even basis. If the distance is Kitsap County to Philadelphia, for instance, it may be best to alternate winter break annually, rather split the break in two.
The type of long distance plan you choose will depend on age and emotional make up of children.
The judges will agree to any of the above schedules, if the parents agree to it.
Don’t involve children in planning
I always encourage my clients to work out the schedule on their own without input or discussions with the children. This can be done in person, if the parents can still communicate. If in-person communication causes yelling matches, use email. If communication is even more difficult, use Our Family Wizard. The program provides a tool for parents who cannot get along to communicate with each other calmly and effectively. It also provides other services such as shared medical records.
Have a wonderful holiday full of joy. Act in the spirit of the season, if disagreements arise. And consult your custody attorney in January to prevent the problems next holiday.