The most wonderful time of the year can also be the most trying for newly divorced or separated families. Here, we will look at our ‘golden rules’ for recently divorced partners during the festive period, possible models for Christmas contact arrangements and what help is available for divorced partners struggling to reach an agreement.
Golden Rules for newly divorced parents:
- Do make your child the highest priority
Ensuring your child has a happy Christmas is of paramount importance, and this may require compromises between you and your ex-partner. As the festive period is generally considered to be a time for family, it is perfectly understandable for both parents to want to see the child on Christmas Day; however, no child wants to spend Christmas in the car. So if you and your ex-partner live far apart, then it is best you agree to alternate who has the child for Christmas Day each year. Perhaps also consider that traditions should be split too; Christmas may be the season of overeating, but it is unfair of your child to have to sit through two enormous festive meals in quick succession (particularly two sets of Brussel sprouts).
Most importantly, remember never to ask the child to choose between you and your partner. This puts them in the middle and creates too much pressure and tension.
- Do be considerate of your ex-partner
Animosity between you and your ex-partner can have a damaging effect on your child. Unless there are welfare concerns, both parents should have the chance to spend quality time with the child. Do not compete over who buys the best present, as your child will feel caught in the crossfire. Discuss potential gifts together, taking into account your differing financial situations.
- Don’t be vague
Be clear on arrangements early on with your ex-partner, your child and any other relatives, and ensure these are stuck to (being late for a handover is a sure-fire way to sour the Christmas spirit). If there is clarity at an early stage, everyone has time to plan activities and no-one misses out. If families have different cultural beliefs and traditions, be sure to factor these into your planning.
The wishes of grandparents and remote-living relatives can complicate an already difficult situation. But if the expectations of extended family are managed earlier in the year, this avoids disappointment and Skype/Facetime calls can be arranged.
Finally, be clear with your child and allow them to voice any concerns. Assure them that Santa will still be able to find them, even if they’re not in the family home!
- Do look after yourself
Your child’s enjoyment of Christmas depends on there being a happy and loving environment. You will be best placed to create this atmosphere if you look after your own mental wellbeing. If you are not having the children on Christmas Day, arrange to stay with family or to meet friends who are in a similar situation. Children can also experience guilt if they know they are leaving you alone on Christmas, so they will feel more secure knowing you have something to look forward to.
- Do seek legal advice as early as possible
Unfortunately, sometimes separated parents reach an impasse and may therefore decide to speak to solicitors, attend mediation or even apply to Court to work out arrangements (more advice on this below). These processes can take time, so plan ahead. And remember, when you have reached an agreement, you should always put it in writing along with confirmation that it is agreed to by both parties.
Possible models for your first Christmas contact arrangements
In order to divide up the holidays, you could consider these four common models. Be aware that Courts will often consider it fairest to alternate arrangements each year; so if you have the child for the whole of Christmas one year, the other parent may have the same the following year.
Option 1: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with one parent, Boxing Day and the following day with the other. This would alternate each year.
Option 2: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day morning with one parent, Christmas day afternoon and Boxing Day with the other, alternating each year. This is not advised if the two parties live far away.
Option 3: Both parents are present from morning to evening of Christmas Day. This is only suitable for couples with low animosity. If you do chose this route, be careful not to present yourself as a family unit and therefore give the child false hope.
Option 4: The week over Christmas with one parent and the week over New Year with the other. This is a useful arrangement if you often go away over Christmas, or if you want to enjoy the whole Christmas period uninterrupted.
The model you agree to in the first year doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as future years.
What help is available
It can be difficult to have constructive discussions with a former partner, even though you both may want what is best for your child. A third party can help take the heat out of these conversations, making it easier to reach an agreement. Solicitors can assist you in doing this through a combination of round table meetings, speaking with your partner’s solicitor or discussing arrangements in writing.
Mediation involves you and your partner trying to resolve issues amicably, with the assistance of a mediator. It means that you are not constrained by the Court’s timeline, it can be more cost efficient, and it gives you both far more flexibility than you may have with arrangements through Court. A mediator will facilitate discussion between you and your partner, helping you to come to an agreement. The arrangements you settle upon will then be recorded in a Memorandum of Understanding. It is also wise to seek legal advice alongside mediation to ensure your best interests are protected (since the mediator cannot advise on what is best for either party). Your solicitor can then convert the Memorandum of Understanding into a formal agreement which you can use to plan future Christmas arrangements.
Applying for a Court Order:
If you and your ex-partner are at a stalemate, then it may be time to go to Court. A solicitor will assist you in applying for a Child Arrangements Order (CAO), which will develop a legally binding contact plan. If you already have a CAO but it does not cover the festive period, a solicitor can help you apply to vary the terms of the original order.
Please bear in mind that in late November and December the Courts are flooded with applications regarding child arrangements, so it may take a while for your case to be seen.
Whatever agreement you come to, and however you do so, the happiness of the child is most important. Give yourself and your family the best chance at a merry Christmas by following our golden rules and, if necessary, enlisting legal assistance as early as possible. Goodman Ray is one of the UK’s leading family law firms, which over 30 years of experience. We are extremely well-placed to assist with mediation or legal advice. Please contact us on 0207 608 1227 for more information.