Holiday Parenting Agreements and Mediation
Many families are feeling hopeful that the holidays this year will look far more normal than last year. For divorced or separated parents struggling with parenting agreements, however, the stress may be higher than ever. If you are already pursuing divorce mediation, you can take comfort in knowing that you are in an ideal venue for working out holiday parenting plans. If you are not already in mediation, this could be a great time to start.
Essential Terms in Parenting Plans
Some newly separated parents may not be certain exactly what they want their long-term parenting plan to look like. If you are in this situation, you can make a temporary custody agreement that takes the current holidays into consideration. Be careful not to let the rest of your plan slide though. Sometimes parents agree to something like “joint custody,” “equal parenting time,” or “a 70/30 time split” and then leave out details in the interest of flexibility. While these agreements are a good start, certain terms are essential to include in every parenting plan. These include the general form of custody; how parents will share decision making; a schedule for time-sharing on weeknights, weekends, vacations, legal and religious holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions; and a description of how the schedule will change if there is a change of residence by either parent.
Beyond these basics, the level of detail you need will generally depend on how well you co-parent. You can refer to this post for more information about what to include. Even the most collaborative parents often want to provide more detail on religious upbringing and long-term holiday timesharing.
Holiday Parenting after Divorce
There are no rules about dividing holiday parenting time after divorce, and the beauty of mediation is that it allows parents to think out of the box. Some parents are so amicable that they spend part of certain holidays together. Others need to keep everything at arm’s length. Parents who live further apart generally need to divide up entire holidays or alternate years for different holidays. If this is the only practical solution for your family, building scheduled facetime into the plan can help. Part of a fresh start after divorce can also be establishing your own separate traditions.
Whether you live a few blocks or thousands of miles apart, and whether you plan to split holiday time or alternate holidays, there are certain details that are important to put into writing. Agreements should designate responsibility for drop-offs and pick-ups and times and places for exchanges. They should also specify every holiday covered and set a start and end time for each holiday, or for each part of a holiday spent with each parent. If children will be travelling, make sure to designate responsibility for making travel arrangements and paying travel expenses, as well as what travel Information is to be provided to the other parent and when. Most parents agree to share at least basic information such as flight or train times and numbers, hotel information and telephone contacts.
The most important thing is to focus on the spirit of the holidays and avoid turning negotiations into a competition for time with children. Moving from house to house over holidays can be stressful for children. Pay attention to their needs and try to make things as easy and fun for them as possible. Older children should be allowed to provide their own input into where they will spend time.
Considering Religious Practices
Since many religious traditions overlap with holiday planning, these are two areas that families usually address at the same time. This can be particularly sensitive for divorcing interfaith couples. Raising children in two different faiths can be challenging enough when everyone is part of the same household. Once couples separate, it can become even more difficult. One the other hand, there may be a benefit if parents can divide the holiday schedule to maximize the children’s time with each parent on their own important religious holidays.
Remember that the best interests of your children are most important. This means not putting children under excessive pressure to choose between different religious traditions, which could in effect lead them to feel that they are being asked to choose between their parents.
Religion and Child Custody in New Jersey
When creating an agreement on religious upbringing of children, there can be more at stake than just the holiday calendar. If parents have no agreement, or only an unclear agreement, a court resolving a dispute in this area would look at the overall custody arrangement. A parent with sole legal custody is the sole decision-maker on religious upbringing. In the much more common situation where parents have joint legal custody, the primary caretaker – generally the parent with primary physical custody or more parenting time – has the right to make such decisions.[i]
If parents have joint legal custody and equal parenting time, a court may have to look at other factors. Avoiding this kind of ambiguity by designating a primary caretaker in the parenting agreement can prevent an expensive and time-consuming court process. Parents can also explicitly grant authority over religious upbringing to either parent.
Unless parents agree otherwise, only the parent with decision-making authority can enroll the children in religious education. The other parent, however, retains the right to take the children to religious services of that parent’s choice during parenting time. That parent also does not have to uphold the primary parent’s religious customs. For example, absent evidence of harm to the children, a non-custodial parent does not have to enforce a custodial parent’s religious dietary restrictions. [ii] While the custodial parent’s right to control the children’s religious upbringing takes precedence, courts cannot issue orders that unduly limit the secondary caretaker’s religious freedom.
Modifying Holiday Agreements
Even if you and your co-parent agree on how to divide the holiday parenting schedule during your separation and divorce, you may want to make changes later. Sometimes parents move farther away from one another. Even if travel is not an issue, schedules that work for young children may not work for older children. Religious and family traditions often remain a source of friction for many years. Whether you have an agreement you need to revise, or you never had a satisfactory agreement, post-judgment mediation can help.
If you and your co-parent would like to discuss negotiating your parenting plan with one of our trained mediators, contact us today for an initial consultation.
[i] Feldman v. Feldman, 378 N.J. Super. 83 (App. Div. 2005).
[ii] Brown v. Szakal, 212 N.J. Super. 136 (Ch. Div. 1986).