As the end of the year ushers in another holiday season, many divorcing parents find themselves at odds. Finalizing parenting agreements can be challenging when it includes dividing holiday time. To make matters worse, the 2018 holiday season brings extra pressure for many divorcing couples. Those with alimony provisions need to finalize their divorce agreements by the end of the year to avoid big tax changes.
None of this is easy, but you can at least feel confident that if you and your spouse are negotiating a settlement in mediation, you have a good chance of staying on schedule.Unlike couples who fight it out in litigation, you won’t have to deal with arbitrary and clogged court calendars. If you are close to a final agreement but still have a few kinks to work out, now may be the time to schedule a session with a mediator.
The more work you have done to create a tentative parenting plan before you meet with your mediator, the more quickly you will be able to finalize your plan. Here are a few tips to help you prepare:
Minimum Requirements for Effective Parenting Plans
Your parenting plan should include, at a minimum, the following information:
- The general form of custody—typically this will be either joint legal custody with primary residential custody to one parent, joint physical custody, or sole custody to one parent with visitation by the other;
- A specific description of how parents will share decision making;
- A parenting schedule covering weeknights, weekends, vacations, legal holidays, religious holidays, school vacations, birthdays and special occasions (such as family outings, extracurricular activities and religious services);
- Provisions covering parental access to medical and school records; and
- A description of how the schedule will change if there is a change of residence by either parent.
Include Important Details
Once you have addressed the basics, the two of you will be the best judges of what else you need to include. Divorced parents who get along well and communicate easily usually have little difficulty working out details between themselves. Those with more contentious co-parenting relationships tend to need more written specifics to fall back on. Details can be especially important during holidays, when minor disruptions may feel like major blows in the heightened emotional climate.
Consider including specifics that address the following:
- Times and locations for regularly scheduled exchanges;
- A list of specific holidays and special occasions that will supersede the regular parenting schedule;
- Starting and ending times for each holiday (e.g., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., 9 a.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Friday, etc.);
- Advance written notification requirements for out-of-town vacations with children, and for any necessary changes in plans;
- Priority for scheduling vacations during specified time periods (parents can alternate first dibs);
- Payment for holiday travel expenses;
- Providing travel Information to the other parent, such as lodging dates and locations, modes of transportation, flight or train times and numbers, and telephone contact information;
- Addressing conflicts such as weekends missed due to holidays;
- Establishing rights of first refusal (the option to step in whenever the other parent can’t be with the children during scheduled time, generally after an agreed upon number of hours);
- Establishing rights of other relatives to step in when a right of first refusal does not apply or the parent declines to exercise it; and
- Any other situation that you can anticipate in advance.
If you are feeling pressure to finalize your agreement by the end of the year and are concerned that your plan lacks detail, be sure to include a mediation provision. That way you know that you will be able to address disagreements that come up after the divorce is final without worrying about the other parent running into court.
Be Flexible and Creative
It can be hard to give up established traditions, but part of making a fresh start is the freedom to establish new traditions—maybe even some that are more in line with your own personal beliefs. Don’t be a slave to the calendar. You can choose the best days for your family to celebrate.
Some former spouses actually decide to spend parts of certain holidays together. This won’t work for every family, of course, but it does work for some, particularly those who are able to keep the focus on the children. Even if you are already amicable though, you may want to hold off until you have finalized your divorce. You don’t want an argument over something still up in the air to affect your child’s equilibrium.
Remember that older children have a right to provide their own input into where they will spend the holidays. They will also be much more likely to buy into plans they’ve had a part in developing. If they are old enough to drive themselves, this can make it easier for them to split up time.
Be Practical Too
Some parents work frequent transfers into the holiday schedule. They might switch off Christmas eve and Christmas day, for example. Some even have children spend part of each holiday with each parent. This is generally practical only if you live close together, get along pretty well, and have fairly adaptable children. If these conditions don’t apply, then it might be best to just split the school break into two parts. You can alternate parts each year.
Parents who live many miles apart generally face the biggest challenges. If the children spend all of the school months with one parent, then it might be fair to have them spend most of their school breaks with the other. This can present heart-wrenching choices. Try to approach these choices from the vantage point of your children. Remember that things will be hard for them too. The best thing you can do for them is to keep a positive spin on things.
If you need to be far away during the holidays, build scheduled facetime into the plan. It’s not quite the same thing as being there, but if you get creative, it can come close. Schedule a time to open presents together on Skype, for example.
In a best case scenario, you will rarely need to consult your parenting plan because you will work things out smoothly together. In the event of a disagreement, however, a well-drafted plan can prevent a costly court dispute. Remember to be reasonable and respectful of the other parent, and above all, always put the kids first.
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.