The Holidays and Your Children: Custody in Special Situations

Child Custody During the Holidays

The Holiday season seems to come upon us quicker and quicker every year, and with it comes hectic schedules full of holiday parties and family gatherings. With all of the holiday cheer and places to be, it is important to follow your custody schedule.

Child Custody schedules come in all different shapes and sizes. Before making holiday plans, read over your custody order or separation agreement to avoid misunderstandings.

What documents are used to enforce child custody schedules?

There are two ways to make child custody binding: a settlement agreement and child custody order. A settlement agreement is an out of court document that allows the parents to draft the terms for custody. This document is enforceable by both parents and allows the parents to compromise on a holiday schedule. The other way to settle custody is through a child custody order, which is entered by a judge.

What does my holiday custody schedule mean?

Child custody schedules specify each parent’s time with their children. Schedules are very detailed and include information about custody during weeknights and weekends, as well as holidays. The most common holiday custody schedules are those that alternate holidays every other year, split the holiday in half, or assign fixed holidays.

The “every other year” schedule allows parents to assign holidays the children will spend with each parent on even years. The schedule alternates on odd years and usually specifies the hours of exchange. They allow each parent to spend the entire holiday with their children on a particular year.  This schedule type will allow you to spend the entire holiday with your children every other year.

The second most common schedule is one that splits the holiday in half. The exchange usually takes place in the middle of the day, on the day of the holiday. During holidays that are celebrated on multiple days, such as Christmas or New Year’s, this can allow each parent to spend an entire day with the children. This schedule has the benefit of allowing each parent to see the children on the holiday every year, but does cut the time that each parent spends with each child in half every year.

Finally, a fixed holiday schedule allows you to spend specific holidays with your children every year. This type of order is typically ideal when parents live in different states since it allows parents to plan around school and travel schedules ahead of time.

The holiday schedule applies to numerous holidays including, but not limited to, Christmas, New Year, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Easter, and Halloween.

Can I travel out of the state during my designated time?

The general answer to this question is, “it depends”. Some custody orders and settlement agreements allow parents to travel out-of-state during the holidays, but remember that not every agreement does. Before making plans to travel out of state for vacation and to visit family during this holiday season, take a look at the terms of your custody order or separation agreement. While traveling out of state is possible during this time, it is very important to communicate your plans to the other parent to avoid misunderstandings. If you are considering out-of-state plans make the other parent aware and give them details about your travel plans. However, remember that not every custody schedule allows for this type of travel. For example, a schedule that splits the holiday in half is not ideal if you are planning to travel out of state.

Read the terms of your custody order carefully to make sure that there is not a term that prohibits out-of-state travel. At times orders may require consent from the other parent before making plans to travel out-of-state. If so, it is recommended that you let the other parent know about your plans as soon as possible. If the custody order prohibits out-of-state travel, it is very important that you do not travel out of the state with the children since a judge could consider this to be a failure to follow the terms of the schedule.

What if I need to make last minute changes?

Plans can often change last minute, but we recommend that you communicate any changes to the other parent as soon as possible to avoid any conflicts or misunderstandings. Keep in mind that child custody orders must be followed and failure to do so could have negative consequences to your custody schedule. Even though a parent can request a change to the custody order at any time, remember that a judge will not approve changes unless there has been a substantial and material change in the circumstances. Making changes can take time because it requires that a court date be set to discuss custody schedules with a judge.  

Can a family celebrate holidays together during/after divorce?

Yes. While this may not be ideal for every single family, there are families that are able to come together during the holidays and celebrate together during/after divorce. While this may be doable for some families, there are times when this may not be ideal. If you are considering this, keep in mind that it will require structure and good communication between the family.

What if the other parent won’t agree to modifications or my ideal holiday arrangement?

Unfortunately, in order to tweak a custody order “there must be a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the child.” This means that the change must be drastic and the child’s welfare must be affected by this change. Remember that a custody agreement does not mean that you will obtain your ideal schedule. In fact, you will likely not be completely satisfied with the holiday arrangement. This process involves compromise and at times requires that you give more than you receive. If you and the other parent cannot agree on a holiday arrangement, a court date will have to be set and a judge will set a holiday custody schedule through a custody order.

Choosing a schedule that’s best for your family.

When choosing a holiday schedule, look at the big picture and do not only focus on the short-term holidays. There are several factors that will help you decide on the ideal holiday schedule: where the parents live, work schedules, family traditions, and school schedules. List out your goals and decide how you would like to spend future holidays with your children.

If both parents live in the same town, a split holiday schedule may work better because it will allow the children to see both parents and family members during the holidays. However, if one of the parents lives in a different state or if a parent travels to visit family members in other states during the holidays, perhaps every other year or set holiday schedule would be a better fit because it will allow the children to continue to participate in these family traditions and visit their family members. In this situation, it will also lessen some of the stress of traveling because it allows parents to plan ahead.

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