The holidays can be stressful for everyone, but for divorcing or separated parents, the holidays can be especially difficult. They are a reminder that from now on, important days may often require a compromise that threatens to take some of the joy out of the holiday. Having a skilled family law attorney on your side can help to alleviate the stress and to reach the best outcome.
Being in a custody dispute often means that that a court is tasked with deciding how your children will spend their holidays. Courts deciding parental rights matters are regularly called on to resolve disputes where the parents cannot agree on an aspect of their shared parenting responsibilities.
When parents can get along, they often agree to alternate each holiday on an annual basis. One parent spends Thanksgiving with the children on even numbered years and Christmas on odd numbered years, the other parent vice versa. While Maine's family courts will almost always approve an agreement between the parents, the court is obligated to reach a resolution in the best interest of the child or children and must undertake its responsibility to adjudicate the facts and provide a resolution to the dispute. This would include a schedule for holidays. See, e.g., Light v. D'Amato, 2014 ME 134, 105 A.3d 447. Even where the parents do not agree to this schedule, a court might impose a rotating schedule. Sometimes having the court decide makes the parents reach an agreement on their own. One parent explained:
Maybe I should tell you about how I had to go to court. [My ex] sees Christmas as when her extended family celebrates it. They celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and sometimes the day after. Our decree says that one year she has them for Christmas Day and one year I have them for Christmas Day. This is my year to have them for Christmas Day, and I said, ‘Let's figure out a time.' It would be 8 or 9 in the morning to 8 or 9 at night. Well, she e-mailed me and said Christmas is when her family celebrates Christmas so you will get them the 27th. So I went to court to get them on Christmas Day. What was even sillier was the judge's decision. He agreed that I should have them on Christmas Day – midnight until midnight – and next year with midnight to midnight, I said [to the ex], ‘You know, this is stupid. Let's just do 8 o'clock to 9. They are just going to be sleeping [at midnight]' . . . so we finally agreed to that.
Paul Schrodt, et al., The Divorce Decree, Communication, and the Structuration of Coparenting Relationships in Stepfamilies, 23 Papers in Communication Studies 5.
If the parties live close enough to one another, and can otherwise fake a smile long enough to prevent from ruining the day, parents can divide up the day on each holiday: both parents compromise to have some time with their children on every holiday. For many people, half of each Thanksgiving is better than a going a full year without the holiday.
But whatever the choice, and regardless of whether it was one that everyone agreed to or was forced on the parties by a court, parents not living together should consider if they are working to ensure a peaceful holiday for their children. Splitting the holidays between two households increases the number and frequency of transitions and likely means more opportunities for parents to fight.
Whatever situation you face, it is important to remember that the holidays are magical for children. You can encourage your child(ren) to enjoy the time with the other parent and their extended family. The good news is that children whose parents can maintain conflict-free parallel parenting thrive so long as there are well-articulated parenting agreements and orders specifying contact, and joint parental decision-making when required. See Joan B. Kelly, Children's Living Arrangements Following Separation and Divorce: Insights From Empirical and Clinical Research, 46 Family Process 1, 41 (March 2007).
If you and your co-parent are unlikely to agree on a holiday schedule, or anything else for that matter, you might end up having a judge deciding what is in your child's best interest. While this process may seem overwhelming, an experienced family law attorney can guide you through the process and perhaps even help arrange a settlement where no agreement seems likely now.
If you are already living under a court order regarding visitation but your co-parent has refused to follow the schedule, an attorney can help you enforce the visitation schedule. See Brasier v. Preble, 2013 ME 109, 82 A.3d 841.
The family law attorneys at Hallett Whipple Weyrens are ready to help you reach an agreement about the holiday schedule or whatever else you need