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Joint Custody Holiday Schedule During Divorce

For parents of young children who are going through a divorce during the holidays, it is crucial to establish a joint custody holiday schedule that allows the children to experience the joy of the season with each parent. How do divorcing parents handle the issue of Christmas and other holidays in child custody disputes, and what kind of schedules do North Carolina Divorce Courts order in Child Custody Cases?

Picture of a child in a Santa suit for the article about joint custody holiday schedules during a divorce.

Everyone’s individual divorce case is unique to their family situation, but as family law and Divorce Lawyers specializing in child custody cases, the team at Doyle Divorce Law in Raleigh, NC sees all kinds of holiday custody schedules. Before you decide what kind of schedule works for you and your family, there are several factors to consider. 

In a perfect world, every child would have the benefit of waking up to two loving parents every Christmas morning, but as a parent experiencing divorce during the holiday season, the sad reality is that many parents do not stay together– in those cases, a Christmas custody schedule becomes extremely useful and necessary for everyone to have the least amount of conflict as possible this holiday season. 

Ways to Adjust to the Holidays Following a Divorce

The most important aspect of adjusting to a new schedule with your children following a divorce is to communicate with your ex-spouse. Keep any mention of past conflicts or other legal issues related to the divorce separate from conversations about custody schedules during the holidays. 

Focusing on the kids and who spends time with them on which days of the holiday season should be the priority of you and your ex’s focus to determine a schedule of shared time with your children that makes both parents as well as the kids satisfied that they’ve spent the holidays with the people they love. 

How to Divide Time During the Holidays 

For school-aged children, there are two ways to view holiday custody schedules: 

  1. Divide the holidays: Divide the exact day or days of the holiday to be shared between the two parents– for example, Christmas is typically recognized as Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and sometimes the day after Christmas. New Years will include both New Years Eve and New Years Day. 
  1. Divide the days off school: Divide the entire period the children are out of school. North Carolina school systems release for Christmas several days before the actual holiday and resume after New Year's Day. The same principle is true of Thanksgiving, Easter, and some other holidays. 

If you address the holiday only, you are dividing only a day or two, while addressing the holiday as a break from school and dividing that time period you will be dividing more time. Either method is acceptable if it works for the children and their parents. 

The most important detail in scheduling time divided between parents during the holidays is to ensure that both parents, as well as the children (and anyone else like grandparents, aunts, or uncles who are used to interacting with the kids during this time), are made aware of which days are spent where and with whom. 

This avoids any potential conflicts and allows a clear communication among all involved parties. When helping your children cope with divorce, it’s important to consider how transitioning from parent to parent during the holidays can be emotional and difficult for them– focusing on communicating well with your ex and adhering to a discussed schedule is a good way to focus  on positive aspects of spending the holidays together as opposed to having holiday hand-offs that cause stress or arguments. 

Tips for Non-Custodial Parents

If you are the secondary custodial parent, meaning you have less physical time with the children, look carefully at how the regular custody schedule works and how it would be affected by holidays. Do you have custody every other weekend or some other limited custody schedule during the school year? 

If so, you may benefit from treating the holiday schedules as the entire break from school and dividing or alternating that period as opposed to simply dealing with it through the method of looking at just the holiday itself. For example, insist on at least half of the time period the children are out of school to be spent with you for the holiday. You will get more time with your children and it will not interfere with school.

Tips for the Primary Custodial Parent

Approach holiday breaks according to the reasoning behind the regular custodial schedule.

If the custodial schedule was set up the way it is (you having most of the custodial time during the school year) mainly due to school, then consider dividing longer school breaks equally if it will benefit your children. 

If the regular custody schedule was set up as a result of the other parent not particularly wanting or being capable of having more custodial time, consider limiting holiday schedules to dividing by the holidays themselves so that the children can get the most out of their time spent with each parent this holiday season. 

Typical Christmas Schedules Examples

At Doyle Divorce Law we’ve seen parents handle Christmas and other holiday parental custody schedules in a variety of ways. If you are unsure if your proposed holiday schedule adheres to your current custody agreement or if you are concerned that your ex-spouse is violating your custody agreement during the holidays, reach out to your trusted Raleigh divorce lawyer for assistance in setting a Christmas holiday schedule agreement. 

How to Divide the Break

One parent gets the child(ren) for a designated time of the school break, specifying dates and times, then the child(ren) is transitioned to the second parent. 

  • From the last day of school prior to the Christmas Holiday until December 24th at 4:00 pm at which time parent #1 (either mother or father) shall begin their custodial time. 
  • Parent #2’s visitation shall continue until the first day of school after the Christmas holiday when the child is returned to school at which time the regular custodial schedule shall resume. This schedule will typically be different however the blocks can be alternated and the exchange day may, of course, be whatever the parties wish.
  • The key is to divide the break in a fair and predictable way that is consistent and well-defined. Naturally, you would need to specify exact times and transportation responsibilities if they are not defined in the general custody provisions.

How to Divide the Holiday

One parent gets the child(rent) for one part of the actual Christmas holiday, specifying dates and times, then the child(ren) is transitioned to the second parent for the remainder of the holiday. 

  • Parent #1 (mother or father) shall have custodial time with the minor children for Christmas beginning on December 24th at 9:00 am and ending on December 25th at 2:00 pm when he/she shall return the minor child.
  • Parent #2 shall have custodial time for Christmas from December 25th at 2:00 until December 26th at 8:00 pm at which time the regular custodial schedule shall resume.
  • It is important to specify the holiday visitation for both parents, even the primary custodial parent as Christmas can fall on a weekend or other regular custodial period that could otherwise affect visitation.

How to Alternate the Holiday

While it is rarely done for Christmas, many holidays are alternated with one party having odd years and the other having even years. It would still have to be specified whether you are alternating the actual holiday or a specific period of time often associated with the holiday. For example, many people are disappointed that their failure to specify "Labor Day" as the entire Labor Day Weekend has resulted in a thwarted beach trip or other surprises.

  • Parent #1 (either mother or father) gets the child(ren) for Christmas 2022. 
  • Parent #2 gets the child(ren) for Christmas 2023. 

Agreements to Work Out Holidays

Agreements to "agree" are not agreements at all. One cannot agree to some unspecified concept. Regardless of how amicable the parties are, all custody terms should be defined at least in the event the parties are unable to agree. Courts cannot order parties to "agree" to a substantial custodial term, however, parents often settle custody disputes in Consent Orders or Separation Agreements with a provision that they "agree to divide holidays" or "share the holidays" or some other language that defers the decision.

While some parties are able to always agree, others find it difficult or impossible as unforeseen factors come into play down the road such as new spouses or love interests. Specify a schedule in the event you cannot agree and contact your divorce attorney to iron out the details of your holiday custody agreements. 

Younger Children and Holidays

Holiday schedules for children who have not begun school can be arranged in whatever fashion the parents wish and agree on or in any way a Judge finds are in the best interests of the minor child. The key is to consider what will happen when school or preschool begins. Most Agreements or Consent Custody Orders will not automatically change when the children begin school. Work with your family law attorney in creating a mechanism to change or review the holiday and custody schedule upon enrollment.

Factors to Consider in Holiday Custodial Schedules

There are many factors in determining the best Christmas and general holiday schedule for families who have experienced a divorce. 

When considering custodial holiday schedules, make sure your pre-planning of when the children spend their time with each parent takes the following into account: 

  1. Family traditions and gatherings
  2. Travel planning and needs
  3. The advisability of traveling on an actual holiday
  4. Costs of travel
  5. Potential for new family traditions after a divorce
  6. The needs of the children to spend time with each parent

Don't Let Divorce Ruin Your Holidays

If you are facing a separation or divorce this Christmas season, remember that you are not alone. While everything may be harder this year, remember that you have the power to make it better. 

Consider putting all of your energy into making this Christmas the best it can be for your children. Avoid the temptation to skip holiday parties and family get-togethers. Try something new and special like buying a live tree to decorate or taking the kids to a show or on a short trip.  This year may be tough, but moving on with your life and helping your children adjust can be accomplished one step at a time.

Seek Legal Advice from a Raleigh Child Custody Lawyer

Whatever method you choose to handle holiday custodial time, it is imperative that you seek and obtain the advice of an experienced family law attorney. 

Child custody cases are complicated and any agreements should be effectively drafted and formalized in a legally enforceable manner. A child custody attorney can advise you on your options and review the specifics of North Carolina Child Custody Law

The decisions and schedules put into place early in a contested, uncontested, or collaborative divorce are vitally important and can be very difficult to change. Specific legal advice is the best way to ensure you and your children will have the custodial schedule that everyone deserves this holiday season.

Contact Our Raleigh Family Law Attorneys

The holidays can be extra stressful for you and your children when a divorce is in the process or you and your spouse were recently divorced. 

Figuring out where the children will spend the holidays and which side of the family gets the kids for which days and activities can be overwhelming, emotional, and even traumatizing for the children if things are not communicated, scheduled, and adhered to. 

Doyle Divorce Law believes it is best to contact an experienced family law firm in Raleigh to help ease the stress of your divorce during the holidays. 

We can be reached by calling (919) 296-1638 or completing the form below.

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