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Tips for Navigating Child Custody and Upcoming Holiday Plans

Before you book a flight, check your custody agreement.

Key points

  • Refer to your settlement agreement if you are already divorced when making travel plans.
  • If your agreement does not address holiday plans, or if you don't have one, contact your lawyer for clarification.
  • Discuss the plans with your co-parent before you involve the children in any planning.
RyanJLane / Getty Images Signature
Travel sites are recommending to book your holiday plans now. But before you book your flight, review your custody agreement.
Source: RyanJLane / Getty Images Signature

With Labor Day in the rearview mirror and the school year in full swing for most, the holidays are practically right around the corner. There are various days your children will be out of school and long weekends to consider in the very near term.

It is important to plan ahead because it will help ensure your children are not left wondering how they will spend the long weekends and holidays.

Many gatherings will be back to “normal” this year for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. And we’re likely entering the busiest travel season of the year as COVID restrictions are lightening and gas prices are decreasing.

But if you have recently gone through a divorce or are in the middle of divorce proceedings, you are likely already aware of how your divorce will alter holiday plans for your family this year.

This is especially true if there are children involved.

Travel sites recommend that travelers book their holiday plans now, but before you book your flight, be sure to review your custody agreement. If you are still negotiating your custody issues, you should check with your attorney to understand which holidays you will spend with your children for the upcoming school year and/or to work out a holiday and vacation schedule.

Issues of dividing holidays and school vacations can become a significant source of anxiety and pressure, even in a recently established separation or divorce, so, ideally, you will be able to begin conversations and planning now, before the holiday season is fully underway.

So, as you dream of having a stress-free holiday, here’s what you should consider concerning custody matters.

Clarify Plans With Your Co-parent First

If you are already divorced and have a settlement agreement that both co-parents agreed to, refer to that document if you have any questions regarding who will have the children, when, and for how long.

When working with my clients, I typically set out very specific provisions regarding holiday plans. That might include who will have the children, when and where pick-up and drop-off will occur and sharing itineraries if the children are traveling with a parent.

Discuss the plans with your co-parent before you involve the children in any planning. If the children know that you and their other parent are on board with a plan, the holidays will be less stressful.

Ensure you are not required to get court permission if making changes.

Sometimes an agreement allows for flexibility as to changes in vacation time between you and your co-parent, and sometimes it does not. Be sure that if you and your co-parent are changing the rules of the agreement, you are actually permitted to do so without court permission.

Certain agreements specify how to change a holiday and vacation schedule, so review the “fine print.” If you have any questions, ask your attorney.

For example, your agreement may require that you both consent to any change via email or text; other agreements may require a signed document modifying the agreement, and some may even require notarized documents. You want to strictly follow the directions outlined in the agreement so that you do not end up in a situation in which your co-parent says “yes” to a change and then pulls the rug out from under you after you have made your vacation plans.

Don’t have an agreement yet? Or maybe you do have an agreement, but it does not specifically address custody plans for the holiday season. That’s OK.

Either way, speak with your lawyer and also consider reaching out to your co-parent to discuss the holiday plans as soon as possible so that everyone has time to discuss, consider, and make appropriate arrangements.

Be comfortable splitting the time fairly and equitably.

In my experience, there is no “one-size-fits-all” holiday custody arrangement.

Most divorce settlements outline that the “holidays'' are alternated or divided by the parents. That said, you might prefer greater flexibility. Maybe both parents agree that one parent can have Christmas Eve and another Christmas Day, or you agree to split the Jewish holidays or the nights of Hanukkah. You might also consider splitting holidays like Halloween so you can “trick or treat” with the children. Thanksgiving weekend can encompass the long weekend so the children can travel to see both sets of grandparents.

As I always say, being supportive and allowing for a fulsome relationship with the other parent is critical for your children’s mental health and will likely be important if you are ever before the court for a custody hearing.

Put it all in writing.

No matter what you decide for holiday plans with your child, the most essential element to ensure you reduce anxiety around this issue is to send the specifics of your holiday plans to your co-parent in writing and confirm their acceptance of the plan.

If needed, work with your attorney, as it is imperative that the plans are documented in a legally sound agreement in case there is an unexpected change of plan or point of view.

And most importantly, try to avoid conflict.

We all know the holiday season can be stressful, especially if you are in the midst of divorce proceedings or entering the first year following your divorce. When you add in planning, logistics, and travel, family conversations can quickly escalate to arguments. You, your former spouse, and your children are likely all still figuring out how to adjust to the new normal of living in different homes.

I work with many mental health professionals as a part of my practice. Their consistent advice is to do everything you can to avoid conflict in front of your children, to not speak ill of your co-parent in front of your children, and, whenever necessary, to do everything you can to put your children’s needs ahead of your own.

It is also very important to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children as you have difficult conversations and are inevitably forced to compromise on what might be special and long-held family traditions.

Despite the frustration and sacrifice, do your best to find ways to celebrate and enjoy the many upcoming holidays and make sure that your child is able to.

These opinions should not be considered legal advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, please contact a family law attorney in your area.

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