School's back in session. Halloween and its tricks and treats are coming up fast. Next up: the highly anticipated holiday season! When many of us think of the holidays, images of a big turkey dinner with all of the fixings, or a family sitting around the fireplace opening presents, come to mind. However, for parents who are considering separation, have gone through a custody battle or who may be in the midst of one, holidays can conjure feelings of anxiety, resentment, and confusion. The same holidays that were celebrated as an intact family unit can now be spent fighting over the holiday schedule and losing focus on what really matters: the happiness and well-being of your children.
For a family law attorney, the holidays are one of the busiest times of the year. Clients often wait until the last minute to read the holiday schedule in their parenting agreement or custody order, and then need to request changes to it. For those with no agreement or court order, clients begin frantically trying to determine how and where the holidays will be spent. Can you fly to visit your folks? How about a trip to Disney to celebrate the New Year with Mickey Mouse? In order to avoid the pitfalls that come with waiting until the last minute to determine where and with whom your children will be for each occasion, the time to think about the upcoming holidays is now.
If you have a custody schedule, sit down with a calendar and compare how your "regular" parenting schedule works with your "holiday" schedule. Often, one parent may have two consecutive weeks with the children during their winter break from school based on how the calendar works out in a given year. Holidays and other special time typically replace and supersede a "regular" parenting schedule, sometimes making it difficult to understand. Knowing that now can alleviate last-minute panic and allow for better planning. If there are questions about the holiday schedule, ask your attorney to review the schedule to make sure your understanding is accurate. Many times, parenting schedules do not consider extra-curricular activities, school plays, or teacher work-days that may extend the holiday schedule. These are often events that did not exist when the original schedule was drafted or contemplated. If necessary, your attorney can work with the other parent or opposing attorney to address any confusion as to how the schedule will work in practice, particularly when there are unforeseeable gaps.
If you do not have a regular or holiday parenting schedule in place, then each holiday will need to be decided upon with the other parent. Trying to sort this out just a few days before the occasion will most likely not turn out well for either parent, and most importantly, your children. If you and the other parent have an amicable or healthy relationship, consider talking with him or her about expectations for the holidays. If there are still too many emotions tied to the conversation, or your conversations are simply unproductive, use email as a safer and more effective alternative. Questions may include whether you are going to share Thanksgiving Day, or are you going to alternate the Thanksgiving holiday each year? If one parent has Thanksgiving with the children this year, how does that affect the other parent's position on the Winter Break in December? Address those questions now, and you have a better chance of making it through the holidays with as little contention as possible.
For example, a Thanksgiving Holiday parenting schedule may be that one parent has the children in his or her care from the time school recesses for the Thanksgiving Holiday until the following Monday when school resumes. Next year, the other parent may exercise this same extended Thanksgiving Holiday time. (Another option may be to have a Thanksgiving Lunch with one parent and a Thanksgiving Dinner with the other.)
For the Winter Break, parents often agree that if one parent had parenting time with the children for the extended Thanksgiving Holiday, then the other parent would be given parenting time with the children during the first half of the Winter Break or at least the first few days that will encompass Christmas Eve. If Christmas Eve is important to your traditions, and you are not comfortable allowing the other parent to share in Christmas Eve alternating years, then it may be necessary for the Court to determine a parenting schedule, which could be incredibly costly and time intensive. Think constructively and objectively as to whether the Court will believe the children should be given the opportunity to spend time with both parents during special holidays, such as Christmas Eve.
While it is paramount to consider your family traditions, you should also think about life three years from now. Will you want the flexibility of travel? Might you be married with a blended family and new traditions? Don't forget to look forward to your next chapter.
Regardless of the schedule, remember you can be flexible. The holidays are not about winning or sticking it to the other parent. The focus should be on ensuring that children get quality time with each parent and that the children see both parents working together.
So if you feel it is too early to think about the holidays, consider this: Target and other big retail stores put out their holiday items approximately two months before each holiday. While most of us think this a bit premature, maybe they have it right.