The holiday season is perhaps the most difficult time of year for clients going through a divorce (or even those who have previously gone through one), especially if the client has a minor child or children. Like clockwork, as the major holidays come and go, so too does the barrage of phone calls to my office regarding the holiday visitation schedule. During this sometimes already stressful time of year, disputes over the holiday visitation schedule are often what put domestic clients over the edge.
So what can a domestic client do to lessen the stress associated with the holiday season (at least from the perspective of the holiday schedule)? Here are a few tried and true suggestions:
1. Negotiate a thorough, detailed schedule at the beginning. Often, clients are in a rush to negotiate and sign their Settlement Agreement or initial Court Order, and, in so doing, they skim over important details such as what time holiday exchanges are to occur or where holiday exchanges should take place. Some clients are so eager to complete these documents (or are so convinced that they will maintain a good “working” relationship with their soon-to-be-ex) that they resort to the almost always fatal “the parties shall equally divide the holidays on an annual basis pursuant to a mutually agreeable schedule” (or some variation thereof). While I have had clients who are able to work out the schedule by themselves year after year, unfortunately, most parents are not able to do this. As a result, from my perspective, it is almost always advisable for a client to start out with a detailed, default schedule that the parties can then agree to vary from, rather than to agree to a loosey-goosey schedule (or none at all).
2. Discuss annual holiday plans early and often and put any deviations in writing. If you are one of those clients who have the “divide the holidays as the parties mutually agree” language, or if you and the other parent simply wish to deviate from your written schedule, the most important things to do are to start discussing the holiday schedule early and to put any deviations in writing. By commencing the “negotiations” early, any disagreements are more likely to be worked out before the holiday actually arrives. Further, putting the outcome of any discussions in writing (email is really great for this!) reduces the likelihood that you’ll drive to Virginia Center Commons at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Day to exchange little Johnny only to be met by an empty parking lot.
3. If the schedule truly isn’t working, take legal steps to have it changed. If, each year, the schedule in your existing Settlement Agreement or Court Order causes screaming and/or crying, it may be time to meet with a domestic attorney to investigate having the schedule modified. After all, your children (and you) deserve to have happy holidays!