Families face many changes during a divorce and one of the biggest changes is the time they spend during the holidays. They will most likely no longer spend time together with the entire family (i.e., with both parents) and many of their holiday traditions will never be the same. Common problems include parents who are unable or unwilling to make an agreement as to how the children will spend their time during the holidays, poor behavior by one or both parents, travel plans, lack of communication between the parents, and the court’s availability (or lack thereof) to solve these problems in time for a particular holiday.
Often, parents cannot agree on how the children will spend their holiday time, so Arizona courts try to enter orders for holiday parenting time that are fair and in the children’s best interests. Courts will typically evenly divide the holidays between the parents. The holiday schedule always supercedes the regular parenting plan. For example, if Christmas Day falls on a day that would typically be the mother’s day with the children, but the father gets the children for Christmas this year, the court’s order is that the children will be with their father on Christmas.
A typical holiday schedule will usually say something like the children will be with the mother on Christmas Eve and with the father on Christmas Day in odd-numbered years and will be with the father on Christmas Eve and the mother on Christmas Day in even-numbered years. They will be with the mother on Thanksgiving in odd-numbered years and with the father in even-numbered years. They will be with the mother on Easter in odd-numbered years and with the father in even-numbered years. They will spend every Mother’s Day with the mother and every Father’s Day with the father. They courts will also define each holiday, such as setting forth a time that the holiday parenting time begins and ends, in order to avoid future disputes as to when a parent gets to pick up the children to begin a holiday. Ideally, the parents will discuss the holiday schedule and will be willing to compromise and work together in order to agree on their own holiday schedule without having to ask the court to impose a holiday schedule on them and their children.
After the court orders a holiday schedule, it is easy to tell when each parent gets the children during the holidays. However, during a pending divorce, the parents may not have a holiday schedule. For example, parents who just recently filed for divorce cannot agree on how the children will spend Christmas this year. What should they do? First, each parent should consider the following facts: the children will want to spend time with both of them; they should consider adopting a plan that will allow the children to participate in as many of their traditional Christmas activities as possible; Christmas is important to both parents; and whatever schedule they get will probably be reversed the following year. Most important, as I always tell my clients, the two people in the entire world who are most qualified to make a decision in the best interests of their children are the mom and the dad. If the mom and the dad cannot or will not make a decision together, a judge who is a stranger will make the decision for them. Most judges in Maricopa County will put genuine effort into making a good decision with the information available to them, but no judge in Maricopa County is the children’s mom or dad. If the parents cannot make a decision together, they may seek an order from the court and should do so as soon as possible. The Superior Court usually has a very tight schedule around the holidays. Therefore, the longer the parents wait, the less likely the court will be to resolve the problem for them. If they cannot get an answer from the court in time, they may consider using a private mediator.
Another typical problem with holiday parenting time is travel. For example, one parent may want to take the children out of school to travel, one parent may not like the other parent’s proposed travel plan, or one parent may not want the children to travel to see the other parent’s family. The parent who is traveling should give the other parent the itinerary as soon as possible and at least as early as the parenting plan requires. If the other parent does not like the travel plan, he or she must remember that it is the other parent’s parenting time and, unless the travel plan proposes an unreasonable danger to the children, there is probably nothing that he or she can do about it. As for taking the children out of school, the parent taking the children out of school should coordinate with the children’s teachers on issues such as homework. Unless the children are at least average students, there is usually nothing wrong with taking the children out of school, as long as it is not for an excessive number of days. As for objecting to the children seeing their extended family during the holidays, the non-traveling parent needs to take a hard look at why he or she has an objection. Unless someone proposes a real danger to the children, each parent has the right to take the children around whoever he or she wants during the holidays (or any day they have the children). Courts will not order a parent to not take the children around someone just because the other parent does not like that person. The best interest of the children is usually to have a good relationship with their extended family and to see them on holidays. Obviously, each parent should not tolerate his or her family making negative comments about the other parent in the children’s presence. As with other holiday parenting time issues, the parents must truly consider the children’s best interests. Also, if they have to seek the court’s intervention, they should do so as soon as possible.
Finally, parents should be careful about what they say to their children, particularly about the other parent. I tell my clients that they should not say or write anything that they would not want to explain to a judge. Three subjects that inspire many parents to say stupid things to their children are the holiday parenting plan, gifts, and money problems. Examples of things to not say to children about the holiday plan are that you will be lonely and sad without them; remind them that they will not be together with you during the holiday or part of the holiday; or inform them that they will miss out on something like a visit with grandparents because the other parent got a court order that they spend time with the other parent. All these comments do is make children feel guilty and sad. Better comments include telling the children how lucky they are to get to have two celebrations or that you and the other parent have made sure that the children get to spend time with two families that love them.
As for gifts, bad and selfish comments include telling the children to not bring gifts from the other parent to your home or forbidding them to bring gifts from you to the other parent’s home (yes, people actually do this!) and criticizing gifts from the other parent, the other parent’s family, or the other parent’s new romantic interest. If you do any of these things, all you are doing is ruining your child’s enjoyment of their gifts. A better approach is to do the opposite. Allow your children to take their gifts to either home and be excited about their gifts, no matter the source.
Hurtful comments about money include telling your children that you cannot afford to buy them the gifts they want (or to do anything else that has a cost) because of one of the following circumstances: the divorce, you pay too much in child support or spousal maintenance, or the other parent has not paid enough child support or spousal maintenance. This is really an attempt to make the children angry at the other parent. A better approach is to explain that you do not have much money right now, but you will still have a wonderful holiday together. If the other parent can be as mature as you, you might try to coordinate with him or her to make sure that the children get everything you want them to get.
What all of this really means is one simple thing: if both parents can be mature and focus on what is best for their children, everyone will be better off.