12/19/2011 10:51 EST | Updated 02/18/2012 05:12 EST

Ask a Divorce Lawyer: How to Avoid Holiday Disputes

Every year it seems that nothing causes as much conflict as Christmas access disputes. Even when the couple is an intact family there is trouble during the holiday season. "Do we go to your parents' or mine this year?" "My church or yours?" And things seem to magnify after separation.


Every year it seems that nothing causes as much conflict as Christmas access disputes.

In talking with clients, I learn that even when the couple was an intact family there was

trouble during the holiday season. "Do we go to your parents' or mine this year?" "For how long? That long???" "My church or yours?" "If we go away, how will my mother get to spend time with her grandchild?"

Things seem to magnify after separation. Over my 16 years in practice, I have spent countless hours assisting clients resolving Christmas access disputes, mostly out of, but sometimes in, court. Here are some tips I hope you find helpful in navigating these choppy waters at this time of year:

1) Generally, most separated clients equally share the entire child's time they are out of school over the Christmas break. The exception seems to be very young children who are not yet able to spend time away from the primary parent for extended periods;

2) Clients usually split the entire Christmas break period so that one parent has the child in the first half in even-numbered years and the other parent has the child in the first half in odd-numbered years;

3) During the Christmas break period special time is usually carved out for access during Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. Usually, but not always, things are structured so that one parent has the child on Christmas Eve overnight to Christmas Day at noon, with the other having the Child from Christmas Day at noon to Boxing Day at noon. They then alternate every year;

4) For newly separated parents, this year should prove slightly easier to negotiate than past years. Since the last day of school for many is Friday December 23, and the first day back is Monday January 9, I foresee most parents carving out the period from after school on December 23rd to Boxing Day and splitting the balance of time (December 27 to January 8) equally, with the exchange occurring on January 1st or 2nd;

5) For high-conflict families, an extreme amount of detail is required in agreements and court orders. I regularly include specifics like deadlines for notification of travel plans, the precise times for pick-up and drop-off, the location of where they will occur and who can be present. For low-conflict families, we often will include a clause which simply provides the general parameters of the visitation with "details to be agreed upon by the parties;"

6) Although it is common for parents to vacation with their child during Christmas, I rarely see the other (non-travelling) parent agreeing for the trip to interfere with their vacation time unless he/she must work or the parties have an agreement where the following year the non-travelling parent can take the child away during Christmas on the other parent's time;

7) For newly separated families, it is not uncommon to share festivities with the children together. I have one case now where the parties have agreed to put up stockings and have dinner together. The non-resident parent will then leave after the children go to bed. They plan to alternate homes next year; and I say "plan" because things become complicated when a new partner is introduced into the mix. New partners mean more scheduling issues, often more conflict, and less likely the parents will celebrate the holiday with the children together as one big happy family. Of course, the best of all worlds is just that.

8) A judge I used to frequently appear before was fond of saying the only good things about being a child from a separated family is that you get two birthdays and two Christmases. He also said the key is to love your child more than you dislike the other parent.

On that note I take this opportunity to remind our readers to love your children more than you dislike your former spouse and wish you all a happy and restful holiday season.

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