By Valerie Jules McCarthy, Esq.
The holiday season brings a mixed bag of emotions. Some people find it to be a time when they can slow down the normally hectic pace of everyday life, take a vacation, spend time with family, make great memories and enjoy traditions. Others find the holidays to be a time when stress is at its peak, as the holiday season often brings unwelcome guests, an exhausting list of demands; including shopping, parties, baking, cleaning and entertaining, to name just a few. No matter which camp you may belong to, going through a divorce will probably put a damper on the holiday season.
In New Jersey, when couples with children decide to divorce, one of the first issues which must be addressed is custody of their children, at least on a temporary basis until the divorce is finalized. After the parents agree or the Court makes a determination on custody of the child(ren), parenting time and visitation will also need to be determined. In some cases, parents reach a suitable agreement without having to battle it out in court. However, in other instances, a Judge must determine parenting time.
Among the many obstacles parents must overcome when going through a divorce, one of the more difficult challenges is often figuring out how to share time with their children during the holidays. This is particularly difficult if parents have spent years creating holiday traditions and routines, which have to be abandoned or modified when parents no longer live in the same household. This challenge often leads people to overlook or ignore the issue until the last minute. However, doing so can lead to even more stress and costly litigation.
As attorneys who practice family law know, the holiday season can be one of the busiest times in the profession. This surge in litigation is often due to last-minute disputes regarding holiday parenting time with children. In 2013, I had to participate in a telephonic hearing on Christmas Eve to address Christmas Day parenting time for one of my clients. This type of nail biting suspense is great at the movies, but created an extremely difficult and unpleasant experience for my client, who had to wait until Christmas Eve to find out if she would be able to spend time with her children on Christmas Day.
Unfortunately, these situations occur every year during the holidays, and make it very difficult for parents to plan activities and enjoy the holiday season with their children. However, proper planning and communication can alleviate these issues and allow people to enjoy the holidays (as much as possible, given the circumstances). Here are my four tips on surviving, and even possibly enjoying, the holidays with your children during the divorce process:
1- Think Ahead-Discuss & Create A Holiday Time-Sharing Schedule With Your Spouse
People often wait until the last minute to make holiday plans. We are all guilty of procrastination. But, if you are going through a divorce, you no longer have this luxury. When parents reside in two different households, they must share time with the children and cannot simply make unilateral plans, as they may have done when the family was intact.
Many divorcing couples make the mistake of addressing their general time sharing arrangement when they commence the divorce process, but ignore the holidays, especially when holidays are relatively remote. I recommend that parents address holiday parenting time early in the divorce process, in conjunction with addressing their general parenting plan. Failing to do so may result in one party enjoying the bulk of the holidays if there is only one general schedule in place. This scenario leads to last-minute litigation.
If, after discussing holiday parenting time, the parents are unable to agree on a schedule, at least they will still have plenty of time to address the issue. Parties can seek the assistance of counsel to negotiate a settlement or the assistance of a mediator to resolve these disputes. If all else fails, they can file an application with the Court and request that a Judge make a final decision.
2- The Child(ren)’s Needs Come First
It is understandable that parents want to spend every holiday with their children; however, the holidays should not become a battleground. When deciding how to share holiday parenting time, the children’s needs should be the first consideration. If a parent has extended family coming to visit or a special event has been planned for the holiday, these scenarios should be taken into consideration when determining the holiday parenting time schedule. Placing the children’s needs above the parents’ desires may simplify the task of preparing a holiday time-sharing schedule.
3- Be Flexible and Don’t Focus on the Day
Which parent celebrates Christmas Day and Thanksgiving with the children seems to cause a lot of problems. It is often recommended by family law practitioners that parties alternate holidays each year; for example, one parent will have Christmas in odd years and the other in even years. However, the issue of who celebrates a particular holiday with the children during the first year is always a problem.
It may be helpful to view holidays as a season, rather than a particular day. If there is a dispute over who enjoys Christmas with the children, think about celebrating Christmas (or any holiday) on a different day with your children. Family and traditions make Christmas special, not December 25th. Once you are divorced, it is likely you will not spend every holiday with your child(ren) every year anyway; therefore, it is beneficial for you to plan ahead and develop alternate ways to celebrate the traditional holidays on different days. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas holidays often coincide with school recess, so there is ample opportunity to celebrate each holiday on a different day with your children.
4- Memorialize a Holiday Time-Sharing Schedule
Once a holiday time-sharing schedule has been agreed upon, it is important to memorialize it in a written agreement or consent order. If the divorce is mutual and unhostile, it may seem tempting to ignore this tip, but I highly recommend that you do not do so. Placing the schedule in writing will avoid misunderstandings and will prevent one parent from reneging on the previously agreed-upon schedule out of spite or animus later in the litigation, not to mention saving both parties counsel fees and costs incurred to re-address parenting time in the absence of a written agreement.
Holidays can be a stressful time for “intact” families. For families going through a divorce or custody dispute, holiday stress can become intolerable. Consulting a family law attorney to discuss the specifics of a situation can avoid adding additional stress to the holidays. We hope to hear from you so that we may help alleviate your anxiety during the divorce process and assist you in ensuring that you and your children enjoy the holidays.
If you have any further questions on this topic, please email Valerie at firstname.lastname@example.org.