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The run up to the festive season can be stressful for parents who have not decided arrangements for their children. This is because the Christmas holidays departs from a term time routine, and also normal working patterns for parents.
Sometimes, child arrangements are clearly set out in a Child Arrangements Order which must then be observed by the parents. The Order sets out arrangements for how the child or children spend their time or live with each parent and often include specific arrangements over the Christmas break.
When those arrangements are not set out in an order, then parents must agree them between themselves. There are no set rules to determine these arrangements by default, so arrangements are best made a good time in advance. This is particularly important if trips are being planned away and abroad, or plans are being made to see extended family. Keeping the other parent informed of holidays helps maintain a positive co-parenting relationship. Taking children abroad normally requires consent of the other parent and it is sensible to get written consent first before booking the holiday and paying for flights. Some countries require written evidence of such consent at the airport. In some circumstances, taking children abroad without consent of the other parent is child abduction, which is a criminal offence.
Although there is no set formula, typical arrangements could involve spending Christmas Day with one parent and Boxing Day with the other: or Christmas Day and Boxing Day with one parent and then New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with the other. These may be alternated on a year-by-year basis. Sometimes Christmas Day itself is split so that the children wake up in one household to receive their gifts and go to the other parent to enjoy the Christmas lunch, with the attendance of religious services also to be agreed. This works best if the parents live relatively close to each other geographically. It can sometimes be better for the parents to alternate the entire Christmas holiday period (i.e. Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day) where this is logistically more sensible, for example.
It is important for both parents to remain open minded, flexible and find arrangements that work practically for them as well as the children. It may not be best for the children to have two Christmas lunches for example in the sense that too much turkey may be too much of a good thing. Also, in certain circumstances, arrangement may need to be changed if a child is sick for example, in which case video or phone calls should still be arranged if the other parent is unable to spend time face to face with the children.
Good clear and courteous communications are key to agreeing arrangements, and may often be in writing to avoid misunderstandings or confusion. This can be done by email, or parenting apps that encourage the removal of emotive language. It is also important to think about the longer term particularly for younger children as there will be plenty of Christmases for each parent to enjoy with them in the future.
While it is important for children to have their voice heard, they should not be asked to decide which parent they prefer to spend their holidays with. Remaining flexible and amicable reduces the difficulties that can arise if the arrangements made are not respected. Most situations can be sensibly resolved by reaching sensible compromises.
If the arrangements cannot agreed by way of direct discussions, then a specialist family law solicitor may be consulted who may assist with further negotiations. Alternatively, a mediator as an impartial third party may be able to assist in facilitating an agreement outside of court.
Using the Courts is very much a last resort and may not be available due to current caseload pressures on the Courts which will in any event normally require attempts to resolve matters to be explored out of Court first. Another sensible alternative to using the Courts would be to engage an Arbitrator, a private Judge, who can make a ruling quickly and relatively inexpensively that is then usually legally binding and resolves the issue.
If there are safeguarding concerns such as abusive behaviour towards the child or the other parent; drug or alcohol misuse; or criminal activity, which are raised for the first time, however, then it may not then be possible to agree or order Christmas holidays until those concerns have been dealt with. In that situation, the children should normally stay with the parent they are living with if the other parent gives rise to the safeguarding concerns.
We are able to offer a full range of out of court processes, including mediation and solicitor negotiation, as well as assist you if court is the only option.
If you have any questions or concerns about arrangements to be made for the children over the Christmas holidays, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the BBS Law Family Team.