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Child contact at Christmas: make a clear plan

Christmas is undoubtedly a busy period for every family. Between the Christmas shopping, the end of the school term and numerous social events, it is a wonder how you will fit everything in before Christmas Day.  For separated families there’s the added stress factor of child contact arrangements to consider.

It can be hard for a family that has recently experienced a separation or divorce to face Christmas. It can also be hard when a family member is absent for the first time because they have moved away. Whilst spending quality time with the child/ren is undoubtedly most parents’ priority, contact arrangements are often left late too to resolve, exacerbating often already tense relationships.

Sometimes the situation between ex partners is amicable, and they will both spend time with the child over the Christmas period, whether together or separately in a more fluid manner. More commonly though, the dynamic between the parents is too damaged and the Christmas contact arrangements need to be precisely stipulated.

Practical considerations for Christmas contact

Start discussing the Christmas arrangements with your ex-partner as soon as possible, as no one wants to be left feeling disappointed over the festive period. Do not presume that they will simply agree with your proposals.

It is helpful to have clarity, certainty and fairness when making any contact arrangements:

  • Make sure you are clear on the school terms dates and who is collecting the child from school when they break up;
  • Consider and discuss the annual leave entitlement/work commitments each parent has;
  • Think about what other commitments each parent has (i.e. other children);
  • Stagger celebrations so that each child gets to spend time with both their natural parents and any step-parents;
  • Decide whether you wish to divide the period in terms of “blocks” of contact, or whether the normal weekly arrangement will continue with additional contact on the special days or whether one parent wishes to go on holiday for the whole or majority of the Christmas period, meaning that the other parent may be afforded additional time on their return or have similar time the next year;
  • Account for any religious considerations (i.e. if midnight mass is a tradition for one parent);
  • Whether one parent lives off island;
  • Try not to take arrangements too personally. If your ex-partner says they can only see their child for a brief breakfast on Boxing Day, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care.  You could organise a more substantial get together for your child and ex-partner during the holidays; and
  • Appreciate that now is not the time to sort out long-standing grievances. If possible, wait until things have settled down in the New Year.

A common arrangement is to divide special days evenly. The arrangement would then alternate the next year for fairness.

Putting your child first

Christmas is an exciting time for any child, which shouldn’t be overshadowed by any family dispute. Always remember that despite what may have happened in the past between you and your ex-partner, it’s the child’s interests which should be at the forefront of your minds when arranging Christmas contact. A good check on the fairness of any contact proposal (whether formal or informal), is “would I be happy with the contact proposal if it were offered to me?”

What happens if you can’t reach an agreement?

If you are struggling to agree matters yourselves, you could attend mediation. You should engage in mediation sufficiently ahead of Christmas; do not leave it to the week before. It can be helpful to seek legal advice in addition and remember that if you would like an agreement finalised in a court order, you should ideally engage a lawyer to draft this.

Alternatively, you can instruct a lawyer who will either liaise with your ex-partner’s legal representative or your ex-partner directly (if they are unrepresented). Many lawyers will encourage clients to attempt mediation first, if appropriate. Again, timing is important; a rushed negotiation is not helpful for either parent.

Arrangements that are made through agreement are usually more successful and help to foster better relations between parents going forward, which ultimately benefits the child.

As a last resort, there is the option of taking the matter to court. Consider the timing of your application, if you have engaged a lawyer, or are mediating on contact generally and you think Christmas may be an issue, flag it up promptly rather than a few weeks before the big day. The court timetable is busy and cases involving welfare concerns are prioritised. Court is generally the least advisable option due to the increased stress proceedings inevitably create for both parents, and the child.

Final thoughts

If you haven’t done so already, approach your ex-partner now about what will happen this Christmas. When having this conversation remember to be fair and flexible, and take into account your child’s wishes and feelings.

If you need help resolving the Christmas contact arrangements we urge you to act as quickly as possible for the child/ren’s sake as well as your own enjoyment of Christmas. Contact Viberts’ family team on 632267 for more information.

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