SAN DIEGO – December 5, 2014 – We have cleared the gateway to the holiday season with Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror. Now the whirlwind of activities in December begins. Social gatherings, gift buying and giving, meals and special events jam the calendar. We look forward to getting together with loved ones. What’s not to enjoy?
While most people enjoy the holiday season, they can be stressful with added responsibilities and activities. Family holidays become more challenging than ever when you add the stress and strains of separation and divorce.
These issues are emotional any time of year. But add the expectations of family and friends, the desire to hold onto to cherished traditions and rituals, and it becomes too much to handle. Families start wrestling with custody and visitation schedules, winter vacations, and whose family gets to see kids on Christmas morning.
After several decades as a family law attorney, I don’t need to even look at a calendar anymore to know it’s the holiday season. Phones start ringing off the hook in family law offices all over the country.
Beyond the petty power squabbles over whether kids should get a certain video game or a cellphone, there are legitimate fears about unsupervised visits, and even family violence that can arise.
Most attorneys have no desire to spend their holiday season rushing into court to file emergency legal documents at the last minute. Judges aren’t in the best mood to deal with you, either. We would love to have our own family time, just like you. It’s the worst possible time time to ask the legal system to do the thinking for you.
During one of your few quiet moments, plan ahead and follow a few tips to enjoy your holiday season with minimum stress for you and your children. The payoff: saving the added financial expense of legal bills which no one wants at holiday time.
- Look over your most recent court order or settlement agreement to review your holiday schedule. It might be a while since you looked it over. Get familiar with specific dates and times your children are with you, and when they are supposed to be with the other parent. Holiday visitation might override your regular schedule year to year. If you don’t have one, see if you can work one out in advance before family members start making assumptions and end up disappointed.
- Send a friendly confirmation to make sure you and your former (or soon to be former) spouse reach an understanding now. It is better to find out early if there is going to be a battle. See if there are any areas of disagreement you can solve through reasonable discussion without involving attorneys or courts.
Your attorney can review your holiday schedules for minimum cost. A nominal fee now will save time, money, and stress in the long run if you end up hiring an attorney to work out a schedule at the last minute.
- Post a holiday schedule for your kids and review it with them. Make sure everyone is familiar with it so transitions are smooth. No one needs any surprises other than the ones from Santa.
- Understand the schedule that works in July might not be a good fit now. If family members are making a special visit from out of town, allow your children to see everyone even if it disrupts your regular custody schedule. It might be the only time of the year seeing them is possible. It’s healthy for your kids to develop connections with all of their family members and receive their love and support, especially during otherwise stressful times.
- If your kids travel to see your former spouse’s family during the holidays, make sure everyone knows the game plan. Each parent should have a copy of the specific holiday schedule, contact numbers and addresses so the non-visiting parent can stay in touch during the visitation period. If you have concerns about what your custody orders permit, get them clarified and get consent from the other parent in writing so there are no misunderstandings.
In most circumstances you cannot take minor children out of your state without the other parent’s express written consent. If you’re planning to leave town, the other parent should be informed immediately. Don’t forget and then expect him or her to sign off on your plans the night before the trip. Provide the schedule and contact telephone numbers.
- If your former spouse is the one traveling out of town with your children and you have concerns for a child’s safety or suspicions about child abduction, you should discuss your concerns with a family law attorney. He or she can help you decide whether you need to have the courts step in. You must normally show that a change of circumstances has occurred and that modifying visitation is in the best interests of a child.
- Try not to project your anxiety onto your children. But don’t sugar coat the situation, either. Assure your kids they will enjoy happy holidays with both of you, even if the circumstances are different now. Don’t make your kids swear loyalty to one side or another, and don’t make them feel guilty for having fun with the other parent’s side of the family.
- If you feel sadness about family activities that remind you of a time your family was together, forget about struggling to keep everything the same. Accept change as positive and healthy. Introduce new activities into your holiday. See if your kids have some ideas about how they’d like to spend holidays now. They may be more enthusiastic if they feel ownership over the changes.
- If your divorce is fresh, sitting down with your ex and his or her family at the dinner table might be asking too much. But as time passes, see if you can be the bigger person and gather extended family – yes, including the ex – together for events or a meal. While your relationship with them has changed, your child’s relationships with them have not. If you can, be polite for a few hours to allow your children to enjoy the festivities with family.
Saving yourself and your family from an emotional or financial disaster can be a valuable gift this holiday season. Plan ahead, look at the bigger picture, and focus on making the holidays a special time for your kids. They need reassurance and deserve to have fun more than ever when their parents are divorcing.
Myra Chack Fleischer serves as Lead Counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby in Carlsbad, California with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in Communities at Washington Times. Follow Myra on Twitter: @LawyerMyra. Fleischer can be reached via Google +
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