Deciding where children of a divorce spend Christmas

By Lenore Rice

There is very little about a divorce that isn't difficult for the children involved, but the Christmas holidays are perhaps the most challenging time of the year.

Some divorced couples who are several years into their separation will have perhaps now found an arrangement that works for everyone, but for other couples this Christmas may be the first since their separation, or there may have been a significant change since the previous Christmas - perhaps one of the parents has a new partner, or even a new child with their new partner. So just who do the children spend Christmas with, and what rights does the non-resident parent have?

During the course of the actual divorce the couple may have already reached an agreement in respect of contact with the children for the non-resident partner, which is still more often than not the father. When coming to that agreement the divorce solicitors will have asked the couple to consider key points in the year such as Birthdays and Christmas. If that is the case there is an agreed arrangement in place, though that could be changed if both parents reached agreement on an alteration. Setting out a contact agreement in writing during the divorce process certainly helps avoid conflict when the first Christmas and Birthday comes around.

If there is no contact agreement in place the first course of action for parents is to try to come to an agreement through dialogue with each other. At all stages of a separation it cannot be emphasised enough the importance of trying to maintain a good relationship with your ex-spouse. If there are children involved it is even more vital, as you will never be entirely out of the life of your ex-spouse - there will be school meetings and presentations, Birthdays and other days and events that will require you to be in the presence of each other in front of your children.

It should be noted that the normal contact arrangement largely goes out the window when it comes to Christmas. If the non-resident parent normally gets contact with their child or children at the weekends that is temporarily set aside if Christmas falls on the weekend. The resident parent is generally given priority by the courts when it comes to Christmas. The children might then spend Boxing Day with the non-resident parent.

If you come to an agreement for the first Christmas you may want to put it in writing. A lot may happen, for good or for bad, in the following 12 months until the next Christmas, so take advantage of an agreement that seems to suit both parties to set a precedent for the Christmases to follow. You can both change this arrangement if you are both happy to do so. You can involve solicitors if absolutely necessary but you can avoid unnecessary cost and acrimony by reaching the agreement directly with your ex-spouse.

When discussing the issue remember there will be other Christmases. Bear in mind that it is very unlikely that there is a solution that pleases both parents 100 per cent, but the focus of your dialogue is to reach an arrangement that enables the children to have a good time over Christmas, and to feel that they have had quality time with both parents.

Many divorced parents just end up ruining Christmas for their children because they don't fully commit to the agreement in place. Your children need to know that you are both agreed on the plan for the holidays, and comments like "Your Mum said you have to stay with her at Christmas" or "I'm going to be on my own" do nothing to help the children involved. Your children did not ask you to divorce and probably weren't involved in the decision making process - they equally should not be involved in any dispute over where they spend Christmas.

There are of course couples who will find it harder to reach an agreement. Some will have separated under very bad circumstances and the chances of reaching an agreement with each other are very slim. Others may have all the will in the world to reach an agreement but find it difficult to do so because of circumstances - they maybe do not live near each other to facilitate a Christmas/Boxing Day rotation, or the resident parent may want to spend Christmas at the house of their parents, or another relative, or even out of the country. Such couples can turn to mediation to try and reach a solution, and in some extreme cases they will ask the courts to decide.

The important thing for divorced couples to remember is that an agreement needs to be reached to make the children happy - not so much to make the parents happy, though if that can happen to - great. And if an agreement is reached, both parents need to buy into it and not undermine it in front of their children. There are enough days in the Christmas holiday period for the children to spend quality time with both parents.

If you require legal advice or information about child contact or any other aspect of divorce, contact one of the family law solicitors at Wilson Nesbitt by calling 0800 840 1363.