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Holiday Schedules for Children in Shared Custody: Why a Parenting Plan Is Important and Issues to Consider

Holidays are emotional times of the year, but that’s even more so this year when COVID has already disrupted so many plans and will continue to limit family celebrations well into the New Year. It also means that separated or divorced families should come up with a solid parenting plan – i.e., a child custody schedule – that includes a holiday schedule.

Such detailed planning may seem unusual because, during your marriage, children’s scheduling was just juggling carpools and the like. As difficult as that may have been, it was still informal and likely filled with last-minute changes. And other than if a child missed school, there were rarely any consequences if plans changed or an event was overlooked. However, it’s important to understand that a schedule is much more important for divorced parents.

Indeed, once filed, that parenting plan is a legal document with just as much force in court as any other aspect of your divorce decree.

Therefore, while it may be tempting to just “switch days,” change your schedule, etc. with your ex (particularly if the divorce is amicable), generally speaking, this is not advisable. At any point, such changes can be brought to the attention of the court – as evidence you have failed to satisfy the approved-plan – and thus, they can be used against you in future custody proceedings.

While there are websites and calendar programs to help you work out a schedule, before you do so, let’s discuss some common concerns and issues to help you come up with a workable holiday schedule. And, of course, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney if you have any concerns or specific issues along the way.

COVID and Holiday Planning:

While holiday schedules may often be challenging, keep in mind that COVID may substantially complicate the situation.

For example, any time the child is going to be switching households, you may want to prepare a detailed itinerary and compile complete guest lists – everyone the child would spend time with. Otherwise, they could inadvertently end up having to be quarantined or isolated, on either end of the switch. The child could wind up alone on the holiday. And the child might not be able to come home afterward.

Keep in mind that transportation options and other resources (from restaurant openings to retail store hours) may not be as readily available as in years past, which could further complicate your plans.

It’s also possible that previously-made arrangements will need to be canceled or altered. If so, make sure that both you and your ex have a written agreement documenting the alteration. If the changes are significant, consider contacting your lawyer to see if you should file updated plans with the relevant family court.

By the same token, you may also want to double-check existing plans. If, for instance, your holiday itinerary includes traveling to somewhere with a high-rate of COVID infection, attending a large gathering, that could be described as putting your children’s health and safety at risk – and that could be determinative in a future custody hearing. So those types of events are other examples of when would be a good time to contact your lawyer and discuss your options — beforehand.

Techniques for Addressing Holiday Schedules

Splitting Holidays

Parents often decide to split the hours of a holiday between the two households. If that’s the case, then the parenting plan should reflect, down to the hour, the specific times that the child will be with each parent.

While this may sound appealing, in practice, this can be difficult for the child, so make sure that this best suits the child (not the parents). For instance, be mindful if, instead of celebrating, the child will spend a good chunk of the time in transportation between the two households. Make sure the meal schedules and other activities would be complementary. Also, be cognizant that switching mid-day might be even more difficult during COVID, for all of the above reasons and more.

Alternating Holidays/Alternating Years

A common approach that families use is to have children switch back-and-forth between parents, in successive holidays. Some parents also combine this with switching the order on alternate years.

For example, if the father has the children for Thanksgiving in 2021, then the mother will have the children for Christmas that year. Then, in 2022, the mother would have the children on Thanksgiving, and then the kids would go to their dad’s house for Christmas.

Of course, each parent and child would also be free to celebrate the skipped holidays on their own, as their schedule would allow.

When a Holiday Begins …

According to Florida state law, weekends begin at 6 p.m. on a Friday and end at 6 p.m. on Sunday, or when the child returns to school on Monday morning. Weekend hours can be extended if a holiday falls on a Friday or Monday.

Also, in 2020, and in other even-numbered years, the statute provides that the Thanksgiving break begins from 6 p.m. on the Wednesday before the holiday, until 6 p.m. on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. However, if both parents agree, “the Thanksgiving break parenting time may begin upon the child’s release from school and end upon the child’s return to school the following Monday.”

Identifying Which Specific Holidays to Celebrate with Your Child

Because the goal should be to develop a consistent plan, it’s best to consider all of the holidays at one time, rather than individually. Below is a list of common major national holidays and commemorations, and a list of religious celebrations.

Special Dates/Events

In addition to the traditional holidays, consider if there are holidays or events or anniversaries that are special for you and your child. For example, a military family might want to make a point of recognizing a particular day (e.g., Navy Birthday or Gold Star Families). The Super Bowl may not seem worthy of including on a calendar; however, if it’s a shared tradition that you treasure, it’s better to mention it now, rather than say nothing and find out a week beforehand that your ex is taking your child on vacation that weekend.

On the other hand, you may also want to keep in mind days when you will not want to do a special activity. For example, if your children are in high school, you may want to be careful scheduling events that coincide with their final exams or ACT/SAT preparation.

At a minimum, make a point of discussing these dates:

  • Your children’s birthdays (including siblings and stepsiblings)
  • Your and your ex’s birthdays
  • Other significant family events (e.g., birthdays, weddings, reunions, etc.)
  • School holidays
  • Spring break
  • Summer vacation
  • Winter break

Major National Holidays/Commemorations:

  • New Year’s Eve/Day (Federal Holiday): December 31-January 1
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday (Federal Holiday): Third Monday in January
  • Chinese New Year: February 12, 2021 (February-March other years)
  • President’s Day (Federal Holiday): Third Monday in February
  • Valentine’s Day: February 14
  • Mardi Gras: 47 days before Easter
  • St. Patrick’s Day: March 17
  • Cinco de Mayo: May 5
  • Mother’s Day: Second Sunday in May
  • Memorial Day (Federal Holiday): Last Monday in May
  • Juneteenth: June 19 (Some states celebrate as a holiday.)
  • Father’s Day: Third Sunday in June
  • Independence Day (Federal Holiday): July 4 (Since July 4, 2021, falls on a Sunday, the holiday will be on Monday, July 5, 2021.)
  • Labor Day (Federal Holiday): First Monday in September
  • Columbus Day (Federal Holiday, not observed in Florida): Second Monday in October
  • Halloween: October 31
  • Veterans Day (Federal Holiday): November 11 (In some states, there is a holiday for the nearest weekend.)
  • Thanksgiving (Federal Holiday): Fourth Thursday in November (In Florida, the Friday after Thanksgiving is also a state holiday.)
  • Christmas Day (Federal Holiday): December 25 (Some states include December 26 as a holiday.)

Religious Holidays/Commemorations:

  • New Year’s Eve/Day
  • Ash Wednesday
  • Passover
  • Good Friday
  • Easter Sunday
  • Holi
  • Shavuot
  • Ramadan
  • Eid al-Fitr
  • Eid al-Adha
  • Sukkot
  • Rosh Hashanah
  • Yom Kippur
  • Diwali
  • Hanukkah
  • Christmas Eve/Day

What if You and Your Ex Can’t Come to an Agreement?

If you are at a standstill over the proposed dates, it may be time to talk to your family lawyer. An experienced attorney may be able to propose alternative arrangements that you haven’t yet thought of. An attorney also can remind the involved parties that the issue is what is in the best interest of your children. Inflexibility is rarely what’s best for a kid, and courts loathe to hear about parents who put their own needs over their child’s.

If you have issues relating to child custody or any aspect of a divorce, please contact me for a consultation.

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