SAN DIEGO, November 11, 2013 – Family holidays are held up to impossible standards by the media and our memories. Gatherings, gifts, meals and events are all expected to be picture perfect. Who could possibly live up to these standards?
Add the realities of separation and divorce and the holidays become that much more difficult. As families start wrestling with custody and visitation schedules, winter vacations and even gift-giving, the phones start ringing off the hook in family law offices all over the country. I could set my watch by it every year.
Beyond the petty power squabbles over which parent gets to be the better Santa, there are legitimate fears about non-custodial parent abductions and unsupervised visits that can arise.
Most attorneys do not put rushing into court to file emergency legal documents at the last minute during the holiday season at the top of their wish list. We would love to have our own family time, just like you. So do judges. It’s never a good time to ask the legal system to do the thinking for you.
So think ahead and consider these tips so you can enjoy your holiday season with minimum stress for you and your children. Bonus: you’ll avoid the added financial expense of legal bills.
1. Do you have a holiday schedule included in your most recent court order or settlement agreement? 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.
2. Discuss holiday schedules way ahead of time with your children’s other parent early. No time like the present. Send a friendly confirmation to make sure you’re both on the same page. 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 now.
Your attorney should be happy to 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.
3. Draw up a holiday schedule for your kids and post it. Make sure everyone is familiar with it so transitions are smooth. No one needs any surprises other than the ones from Santa.
4. Be flexible and adapt to unusual circumstances. If family members are making a special visit from out of town, be sure your children see everyone even if it disrupts your regular custody schedule. It might be the only time of the year seeing them is possible. Encouraging ongoing relationships with all of your children’s family members is always in their best interests.
5. Do your kids have to travel to visit a parent and extended family? 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 there are any gray areas, get your custody order clarified and get consent from the other parent in writing so there are no misunderstandings.
As a general rule, you cannot take minor children out of your state without the other parent’s express written consent. The other parent should be informed right away if you plan to leave town. Don’t forget and then expect him or her to agree to your prearranged holiday the day before the trip. Provide an itinerary and contact telephone numbers.
6. If your concerns about out-of-town visitation rise to the level of fear for a child’s safety or suspicions about child abduction, you may want to discuss your concerns with a family law attorney and decide whether you need to ask a court for a modification of visitation. You must normally show that a change of circumstances has occurred and that modifying visitation is in the best interests of a child.
7. Stay positive and assure your kids they will enjoy happy holidays with both of you, even if you are personally disappointed your kids may not be with you on a particular day. Your anxiety will create anxiety in your children. Don’t make them take sides and don’t make them feel guilty for enjoying time with the other parent’s side of the family.
8. Consider creating new traditions. 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 introduce some new, fun activities into your holiday. But don’t upset your kids by making changes all at once.
9. If your divorce is fresh, sitting down with your ex and his or her family at the dinner table might be beyond your capacity right now. Once the wounds start to heal, see if you can be the bigger person and get grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – and yes, the ex – together for events or a meal. While your relationship with them has changed, your child’s relationships with them have not. See if you can’t manage to be polite for a few hours to allow your children to enjoy the festivities with family.
A minimum effort on your part could save you and your family from an emotional or financial disaster. Having to hire a family law attorney to handle last minute emergencies during the holidays can be a nightmare and a distraction at an already busy time of year. This is supposed to be a special time for everyone, most of all your children.
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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