We are approaching the time of the year when parents need to have considered and agreed the arrangements for their children for the Christmas holidays.
December can be stressful at the best of times, but there are going to be further complications this year owing to the restrictions imposed by the government in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This blog is intended to look at what sort of arrangements might be appropriate in a ‘normal’ year for parents seeking to co-parent their children after separation and why or how this might prove to be more challenging in the current climate. Getting out ahead of this issue and in the early stages (i.e. now!) is going to be critical as the closer you get to the school holidays, the more fraught any discussions are going to be and the more uncertain the children will feel.
The usual approach of the court is that there should be ‘no order’, which means that the parents are left to their own devices to work out what the appropriate arrangements should look like. They can do this by looking at what the court refers to as ‘the welfare checklist’
- The wishes and feelings of your child (considered in the light of their age and understanding);
- Your child's physical, emotional and educational needs;
- The likely effect on them of any change in their circumstances;
- Their age, sex, background and any of their characteristics that the court considers relevant;
- Any harm which they have suffered or are at risk of suffering;
- How capable you and your ex (and any other person the court considers relevant) are in meeting their needs;
- The range of orders available to the court.
The children’s ascertainable wishes and feelings (what they will actually want) will become increasingly important as they get older. As they reach maturity in their teenage years, this will be the determinative factor.
Where do I start and when?
The first rule, therefore, in terms of making holiday arrangements is to think about what will work for the children and in the case of older children, what they will want. Most children will not want to be put in a position where they will have to choose between their parents.
How should I divide the time?
Usually the Christmas holidays are three or sometimes four weeks, in the case of private schools. The Christmas break itself falls within the middle of the holiday period. One approach, therefore, is to simply divide the holiday period into two blocks, with the handover happening during the Christmas period, so that one parent gets 23 and 24 (and the anticipation of Christmas Day and the whole of Christmas Eve) and the other parents get from halfway through 25th onwards and through until the end of the holiday including New Year’s Eve. The parents would then alternate so that the following year they swap around.
A second approach, which might be better with younger children (where they will want to spend less time away from the parent with whom they are used to spending most of their time) would be to alternate each week and divide the Christmas week separately, so that each parent gets to spend some time with the children over this period.
A further alternative, if the parents live far apart, is to alternate the entire Christmas period entirely. There might be the opportunity to involve the co-parent over Zoom or Skype calls at particular times to ensure they still feel part of the occasion
What’s the solution?
The bottom line is there is no right answer to this particular conundrum. Christmas is a difficult time for separated parents and tensions can run high. If you can, start with a conversation with your co-parent as soon as you are able. If that’s not possible, arrange for your lawyers to speak (ideally over the telephone to foster open lines of dialogue) or meet with a mediator ahead of time so that there are no difficult discussions happening in the run up to the school break up. Considering there may be a range of Christmas activities, concerts and Nativity plays to attend, the sooner you do this the better. If the relationship with your former partner is particularly difficult, it may be sensible to arrange to attend separate events.
What else should I consider?
A further area of contention might be Christmas presents. Part of the discussion can be around who is buying what present for who and where and when these will be delivered. It is not unusual for children of separated parents to celebrate two Christmases – to have a ‘pre-Christmas’ with one parent and then to celebrate the actual day with another. Of course, the gold standard is for the parents to come together on Christmas Day but for understandable reasons that is not always possible.
What about Covid?
The coronavirus pandemic has obviously wreaked havoc with schedules and routines in all sorts of ways and we are now approaching the first (and hopefully only) Christmas under coronavirus restrictions. At the moment the country is under a national lockdown so that all individuals are supposed to stay at home where possible and only leave if essential. An exception was made during the first lockdown and in this lockdown for separated parents, so that children can travel between homes. If there is an order in place, the expectation of the court is that where this cannot be followed, the spirit of it should. It is incumbent on both parents to make the situation work.
When the national lockdown lifts and we move into the tiered system this week, these arrangements will continue as before. Parents need to think carefully if they are going to unilaterally deviate from an existing order. If the court’s assistance is required, then the question will be asked whether that parent acted sensibly in light of the current advice.
23 – 27 December – The Rule of Three Households
Matters are complicated further as the government has announced a relaxation of the rules for Christmas so that up to three households can mix in their own bubble.
Consideration needs to be given to with whom the parents will be spending time. If the period is being divided in any way at all, there is little scope for mixing beyond the two existing households. It may require separated parents to discuss with whom they also intend to spend their time. If there are extended family members – is anyone shielding in either family? Are there grandparents who will spend time with the children or the parents (without the children)?
A consistent and considerate approach is a good idea so consider discussing with the co-parent what the arrangements might look like on Christmas Day and whether there would be an issue with, for example, the children spending time with members of a wider family.
Of course, there are also travel restrictions which may further complicate matters.
What about foreign trips?
Ordinarily there would be the question of potentially taking holidays and ski trips over the Christmas period. International travel is obviously something which is not necessarily available to most people due to the requirement to self-isolate upon return from a majority of holiday destinations. However, if there is to be foreign travel then the details should be provided to the other parent well in advance and the discussion had around whether it is safe to travel and the impact that it might have on the other co-parent’s family arrangements.
If you would like to discuss any of the above issues, please do give one of our solicitors or mediators a call on 020 3824 9950.