Resolving parental disputes concerning children’s arrangements (formerly known as “child custody”) can be a tricky and fraught topic. During separation, emotions often run high and children can find themselves caught between two warring parties. Lodders’ associate Vivienne Middleton, a specialist in Children Law looks at how parents can ensure that the Christmas period is a positive time for their children.
The trees are going up, the town lights have been switched on, the mulled wine is brewing and Christmas is definitely in the air. For most people, Christmas is a happy occasion spent with family enjoying large tables of food and opening presents. For some others however, Christmas can actually be an incredibly lonely and difficult time.
Disputes about the children’s arrangements can be a long, drawn out and expensive process, especially when parents are unable to come to an agreement on their own and an application to the court is made. The festive season, itself, can exacerbate these problems as parents try to maximise the amount of time they are able to spend with their children. It is important that all decisions made about how the children’s time is divided over Christmas have the children’s best interests at heart.
The Stats and the Law
In 2014, a commissioned study of 1,000 separated parents across the UK asked the question, “How do you divide yours and your children’s time at Christmas?” The results found that a surprising 23% bury the hatchet, spending Christmas Day together (higher in London and the South West). 28% of parents opt to take turns each year and 15% of parents with primary custody have the child on Christmas day. 14% of parents will ask the children what they wish to do and a very lucky 11% of children get two Christmas days every year.
It can come as a shock to parents to discover that there is no automatic right in law for children, upon separation, to spend half of their holidays with each parent. Parents are strongly urged to come to their own agreement, between themselves. The Court will only intervene when one parent makes an application to the court after other forms of dispute resolution have been considered, without success. Obviously, when a separation is particularly antagonistic, a court application, particularly to determine where the children spend Christmas Day can further complicate an already difficult situation which can lead one, or both parents to become entrenched in their view about what is in the children’s best interests.
Advice for parents
There is a wealth of knowledge on how divorce and separation can be harmful to children. At Christmas time, in particular, it is vital for parents to work together to present a united front to the children and avoid heated arguments. Here are some ideas to help you consider how you can support your child to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable Christmas:
Try and make the arrangements for Christmas as far in advance as possible because delaying and trying to plan Christmas at the last minute can make the entire affair needlessly more stressful. Chances are that the other parent may have started already making plans which your children know are excited about. By starting the conversation about arrangements nice and early, before the dark nights set in, means there is time to work through any differences and reach a compromise.
Put your children first
It is important that the children’s best interests are kept as the central consideration. When it comes to the holidays, if your children are old enough to express their opinion, let them. Obviously, they should not be placed in the position of feeling forced to choose between their parents or made to feel guilty if their views are not what you wanted, but allowing them an opportunity to say what they want and considering their views in the decision making process is key. There will probably also be a network of wider family members, lobbying the parents to satisfy their own desires about Christmas, but remember, it is impossible to please everyone. Focus on keeping your children happy and making the festive period a fun and exciting time for them and you can’t go far wrong!
It’s not about competition
The holiday period is not about trying to “out-do” the other parent, it is about ensuring that you and your children are able to enjoy Christmas together. Racing to spend more on presents can not only negatively affect your own finances but your relationship with your former partner too. In the same study as cited above, one of the most common source of arguments was a former parent’s propensity to ‘spoil’ a child with excessive gifts to “win” their affections. It can be extremely difficult, but parents must learn to put aside their own adult differences and not let their negative feelings about the other parent cloud their judgment about what is right for their children.
There is a multitude of ways you can split the holidays to ensure that children are able to spend time with both parents. There is no “one size fits all” approach taken by the court. It is important to work out what is best for your individual, family situation. Maybe one parent has time with the children on Christmas Day and the other on Boxing Day, or you can split Christmas Day itself with the children spending Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with one parent and Christmas afternoon and Boxing Day with the other. Some separated parents find that alternating Christmas Eve and Christmas Day between the two households works for them. Some parents will divide the children’s school holidays in half, so the first half, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is spent with one parent and Boxing Day through to New Year’s Eve is with their other parent and the arrangement is alternated annually.
Mediation should be the first port of call. The court should be the last resort. Professional mediation aims to assist both parents to talk about what is best for the children and will assist you to reach your own agreement about what is best for your children, without the stress and cost of litigation. Some mediation services offer “child inclusive mediation” to allow, if appropriate, the children to express their views to someone independent, instead of directly to their parents. Attempting to pursue last minute applications to the court can be extremely stressful and if made too late can mean the court does not have time available to determine the dispute.
If both parents agree to arbitration, it can be a quicker and cheaper route to determine a dispute about children, particularly when there are no welfare issues and the decision is time-critical, like resolving the arrangements for Christmas. Both parents agree the identity of the professional arbitrator and to be bound by the decision.
Difficulties arranging contact over Christmas can sometimes be a small part of a wider problem concerning the children. In these cases, you will need expert legal advice. At Lodders, our specialist family law team understands each family and child’s circumstances are unique to them, and appreciate the impact that their parents separating or divorcing can have on them. For more information, please contact Vivienne Middleton on 0121 2000890 or drop her an email.