Family SOS – How to decide who gets the kids this Christmas
Not sure how to carve up a festive timetable? Top local solicitors Paris Smith share their tips on agreeing who gets the kids this Christmas and beyond
Aside from the post-bedtime Bailey’s and TV binge, if you’re a parent, the joy of the festive season is always in sharing your children’s excitement. But if you’re divorced or separated, deciding who gets the pleasure of those magic moments on Christmas morning can be a major source of disagreement.
From leaving snacks out for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve to waking up at an unearthly hour and seeing their delighted faces on Christmas Day, all parents would, in an ideal world, spend every Christmas with their little ones, agrees Zoe Culverwell, family solicitor at top Hampshire law firm Paris Smith LLP. But for separated parents, that’s often not possible.
While some do choose to spend it together as a family, despite being separated, most have to deal with the unenviable task of dividing up the festive period to decide who gets the kids at Christmas. And of course, it is not only each parent who wants to spend time with their children, but members of the wider family like grandparents, too.
Emotive stuff – and hardly surprising that the Paris Smith family law team often receive enquiries at this time of year from parents who simply cannot agree. So how to break the deadlock? Zoe, it’s over to you…
The starting point in any child arrangements where both parents have parental responsibility is to try and reach an arrangement. Where parents cannot agree and have exhausted options such as mediation, either parent could make an application to the court for it to decide on the schedule of care for the child.
With Christmas now less one month away – and our court system severely overburdened – the prospect of having the court decide the issue in time for this Christmas has long passed. And while there may still be time to use mediation, parents that haven’t agreed need to focus on trying to break the deadlock directly.
Finding arrangements that work for the whole family are likely to result in significant back and forth. Time is running out. Rather than have discussions with your ex-partner via email, consider other options such as a face-to-face or telephone discussion. Likewise, it’s all too easy to misinterpret emails, which can make things even more difficult. With a bit of goodwill, you’ll cut through matters far quicker than by trying to communicate in writing.
Rather than focus on what you or members of your wider family want, think about what your child would like. Given the choice, most children will want to spend time with both of their parents over Christmas but be mindful of the practicalities: young children will likely be up early on Christmas Day and expecting them to move between homes in the late afternoon/early evening when they’re tired is quite tough. While older children may not struggle with tiredness, they’ll likely want to relax with full bellies in their new comfies rather than get in the car and travel to their other parent’s house.
Try to put yourself in the other parent’s shoes – and think long-term too. What were the arrangements last year? What will the arrangements be next year? Can you break the deadlock by agreeing that, whatever the arrangements are in 2021, they will reverse in 2022 and alternate thereafter? Whilst this may lead to disappointment for one parent in 2021, it will give you the opportunity to plan following years and ensure the run up to Christmas in future is filled with festive cheer and excitement – not difficult discussions.
Many parents agree, for example, that their children will spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with one parent, followed by Christmas afternoon and Boxing Day with the other parent. This then alternates each year. Other parents decide not to split Christmas Day and instead agree that their children shall spend the 24th and 25th of December with one parent, with the 26th and 27th of December with the other parent, again alternating each year. If it does become necessary, arrangements like this are likely to be considered fair and child-focussed by the family court.
There are many tried and tested schedules for Christmas but no single ‘right’ answer. It’s about finding arrangements that work for the whole family and, most importantly, your children. That is what a court would try to do if you and your co-parent were unable to agree, but, ultimately, no one knows your children like you do. With this in mind, consider other special occasions throughout the year such as birthdays, New Year or Easter. Might it be that your co-parent will agree to your proposed schedule over Christmas if you ensure the children spend New Year and/or Easter with them?
Write down what’s been decided
Once you have settled on what the arrangements should be, record them in writing so that you limit the opportunity for disagreement moving forward. Entering into an agreement such as a parenting plan can be very helpful and assist with promoting trust and confidence between co-parents. Drafting such a document in January can also be very helpful to focus the mind and ensure that the arrangements for the rest of the year, to include the division of the school holidays, are not left until the last minute.
Tell the kids
Finally, once you have your agreed arrangements in place, let your children know what the plans are and deliver that in a positive, child-friendly way. All that is left to do then is stick to the plans that have been made and avoid any last-minute changes or time-keeping issues, so that Christmas can be enjoyed by the whole family – and, most importantly, your children.