’Tis the Season to Be Flexible

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With the holidays upon us, parents are scrambling to make everything perfect for their kids. Shopping for gifts and planning for family guests are just some of the things parents worry about this time of year. However, if you are a divorced parent, you know the added stress of trying to make your celebration fit into your specific parenting time. If you have been divorced for several years, you also know that sometimes things don’t always go as planned.

All parents understand wanting to spend every opportunity they get with their kids during the holidays. And following your parenting plan, to the letter, to make sure you get every minute of your time is certainly allowable. However, I want to offer just a bit of advice for those following a court-ordered parenting plan: Take a breath and think about being flexible.

I have practiced family law for nearly 20 years and a common call I get this time of year is about holiday parenting time. Generally, a parent is trying to interpret a parenting plan or court order to fit his or her specific needs. Usually this need for interpretation arises because what is written just doesn’t fit their current situation. It is extremely difficult to schedule travel plans, out-of-town family guests and activities around a rigid schedule that may have been written years ago. Most parents don’t want to intentionally disobey a court order and, as a result, risk facing a contempt hearing, so they seek my advice about their options. We usually come up with two solutions: Work it out with the other parent or go to court and ask the judge.

Court orders are put in place for good reason. They maintain structure and consistency. They are much-needed attributes in a custody case to ensure that one parent doesn’t obstruct and/or abuse the other’s parenting time. However, family courts have long recognized that the more cooperation parents afford each other, the better the outcome for the parents and the children. That is why almost all family law court orders will allow some temporary flexibility and compromise between the parents without seeking the court’s approval. My advice, along with what most family law courts espouse as well, is to think about being flexible.

Here is a perfect example: One of my client’s was simply beside herself because she wanted her children to be able to spend a little time with their out of town cousins who were coming for Christmas. However, the cousins were not going to arrive in time to accommodate the transfer time mom was subject to in her parenting plan. The parenting plan stated that dad would get the kids at 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve which would be about the same time their guests arrived. We contacted the children’s dad (he didn’t have an attorney) and explained that mom was requesting a temporary modification to the Christmas schedule and that we wanted to first seek an amicable resolution before filing the necessary documents to present the issue to the judge. Dad was reasonable and instead of simply saying “no” he used the situation to address an issue he knew he may have in the upcoming summer schedule. Because dad simply took a breath and assessed the situation before just defaulting to “NO,” he was able to provide the opportunity for his kids to see their out-of-town relatives, resolve a summer issue that he was going to have, and all the while setting a great example for his children about flexibility and reasonableness. A win/win for everyone.

I am a child of divorce, as well as a divorce lawyer, so I speak with some personal experience and authority. When I think back to holidays during my own childhood, more than any gift I received, I remember the cooperation my mom and dad had with each other. They made sure that my holidays were as normal and drama-free as possible. If anyone was going to miss out, it was one of them, but never me. Thanks mom and dad! Some 40 years later I still appreciate that excellent co-parenting.

Richard Hathaway has been a family law attorney for twenty years.  His practice is focused on providing efficient, effective counsel on issues involving divorce, modification actions, and child custody matters. He is experienced in helping resolve client cases out of the courtroom through mediation as well as in litigating family law matters.