The contact calendar: family planning for separated parents

16 January 2014

As is customary at the beginning of each New Year, the press again reported an expected surge in divorce petitions following the Christmas period.  The reason for this may be that a number of married couples who are experiencing difficulties ‘hold it together’ for the family over Christmas, before eventually deciding to separate.

In most cases, divorce has a devastating impact on a family, especially where children are involved. One of the major challenges for separated parents can be agreeing the arrangements for the children during the holidays and on other important occasions.  This, we have seen, is a common area for conflict.  In a previous blog, we provided a number of top tips for making arrangements in the lead up to the school holidays and reiterated just how crucial effective communication and planning ahead is, particularly when considering arrangements for the children. 

Holidays and other important dates in the year (including Christmas, Easter, school holidays and birthdays) can be a difficult time for children dividing their time between two homes.  If parents are not able to agree arrangements, it can result in tense and emotional discussions, sometimes in front of the children, following which one parent is inevitably disappointed.  It is difficult advice to give that, generally, the holidays are there to benefit the children, rather than the parents.  Unfortunately, often one or both parents lose focus and turn discussions into a purely mathematical exercise during which they try to ensure they take exactly their 50% entitlement for each of the holidays.  This might not work on a practical level as it can involve the children toing and froing or missing out on specific events which one family has planned.

Particular thought needs to be given to international families who want to travel to another country, either for a holiday or to spend a special occasion (such as the child’s birthday) with extended family who may live abroad.  In these cases, the “left behind” parent, particularly if they don’t have a new partner or family of their own nearby, can find it incredibly difficult being away from their children at these important times, especially for the first time.  Parents wanting to take their children abroad must remember to obtain the consent of each party with parental responsibility before they leave the country.  Failure to do so could result in unnecessary court proceedings or even criminal action. 

As a general rule, the courts recognise the benefit in children spending alternate Christmases, Easters and sometimes birthdays, with each parent.  There are occasions when the parent with care, which is often but not always the mother, is reluctant to accept this as a principle.  This is because they will have spent every Christmas/birthday with their children while the family were still together and they will perceive any change to this routine as detrimental or unfair.

It is essential that the children remain in the forefront of everyone’s minds when discussions take place about the division of childcare generally and during the school holidays.  If you and your ex-partner are not able to agree matters yourselves, there are a number of organisations who can help.  You do not need to involve solicitors immediately if this will increase the conflict and be perceived as adversarial.  We refer many clients to mediators, family therapists or counsellors to help facilitate discussions between them and their ex-partner.  In our  experience, the more amicable discussions can remain, the more likely parents will remain focussed on what is best for the children, rather than on winning the battle they believe they have with their ex-partner surrounding holiday contact.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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