Divorce and Family expert Sophie Chapman, Partner at UK law firm Stewarts, shares her top tips for families on how to have an amicable Christmas when it comes to childcare arrangements
Christmas is always regarded as a time to unwind from the stresses of day to day working life, and a chance to cherish moments with family and loved ones.
For separated parents however, this is often far from the truth, as the Christmas holidays can fuel disputes, with disagreements arising over where children will spend the holidays, and how much time they will spend with each parent.
With 2023 marking the first ‘normal’ Christmas since the outbreak of the pandemic, these disputes are likely to rise as parents feel their children have been deprived of spending the holiday period away from homes where they live on a day-to-day basis, putting one parent at a disadvantage, or from spending time with more distant, and often elderly relatives in recent years.
Agreeing childcare arrangements over Christmas
It is in the best interests of the child for arrangements as to where they will spend Christmas to be agreed well in advance of the holidays, so everyone is aware of where they will be over the period and can plan accordingly.
When these discussions arise, the wellbeing and needs of the child should be front and centre of any decision made. The wishes and feelings of the child should also be taken into account, although the weight to be given to their views will depend on their age and understanding.
Typically, separated parents will alternate each year who has their child on Christmas day. For those that still live near each other, it is often possible for the child to see the other parent over other significant days, for example Boxing Day or New Year’s Day. However, for many this is not practical and travel arrangements add to the difficulties of splitting time between families.
The matter becomes even more complex for those wishing to take a trip abroad over the festive period. For parents planning to take their child abroad at any point during the holidays, it is important to have the consent of the other parent in advance of doing so. In most circumstances, both parents will need to consent to their child leaving the country and agreeing this well in advance minimises the risks of travel plans being disrupted at the last minute.
How court orders may dictate how Christmas holidays are shared
Childcare arrangements can be complicated, but any pre-existing court orders should provide a basis for how much time a child spends with each parent and which parent they will spend Christmas with each year.
The court can vary existing orders or make new orders in respect of arrangements for a child. These come in different forms including:
- Child Arrangement Orders – these determine who a child will live with and set out the amount of time a child will spend with the parent they do not live with. They can also deal with the division of a child’s time during holiday periods
- Prohibited Steps Orders – these prevent a parent from taking certain steps, including taking a child abroad
- Specific Issue Orders – these address a particular issue and set out precisely how it should be dealt with, for example an order in respect of which school a child should attend
How to achieve a resolution if you can’t agree plans with your ex-partner
Unfortunately, it often proves difficult for separated parents to reach an agreement on where a child should spend Christmas, and this is where parents may need the assistance of a professional, for example a mediator, solicitor or the court.
Should this be the case, there are different options available to help parents resolve disputes in relation to their children. Some of the steps we discuss with separated parents at Stewarts include the following:
- A specialist family mediator can assist parents to resolve any disagreement through discussion and negotiation with both parents to reach an agreed solution. Whilst it is not suitable in all circumstances (for example where there has been domestic abuse), the mediation process aims to provide a constructive and amicable route for parents to reach agreement in relation to their children.
- Contact a family solicitor, who will be able to support parents to reach a decision over childcare arrangements during the Christmas period. Solicitors will often be able to assist parents to find and agree a solution, which they can both accept as being in the child’s best interests. As with mediation, solicitors can work with parents to negotiate agreements efficiently and effectively, and without the delays experienced in the court system.
- Should all else fail, you can apply to the court for an order in respect of the arrangements for the Christmas holidays. This process can take time, and it is therefore crucial to start discussions early to allow sufficient time for a court application, in the event this becomes necessary. It’s also worth bearing in mind that children over the age of nine may also need to meet with a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service Officer so their wishes, feelings and preferences can be understood and considered by the court.
If you are experiencing difficulties in agreeing childcare arrangements with an ex-partner over the Christmas period, Stewarts’ Divorce and Family team offer support and advice on child arrangements.