For separated or divorced families, Christmas is often a particularly emotionally charged time of year, fraught with practical challenges as parents try to agree contact time and arrangements.
As a family lawyer, I have advised many mothers and fathers, both separated and divorced, on shared parenting during the festive season. No one wants to be exchanging solicitors' letters the day before Christmas, so it's essential that you plan ahead and consider the practicalities, while keeping your children's best interests at heart.
Christmas Day - In an ideal world, geography permitting, children would spend time with both parents on Christmas Day. But if this isn't practical, one solution is to alternate Christmas Day year by year, or to treat Christmas Eve or Boxing Day as a second Christmas Day with the other parent. Fairness is key, but think about the reality for everyone - where will your children be happiest and what is easiest for them, particularly if it's the first time the family has been separated at Christmas? Where possible, avoid holding any difficult Christmas planning discussions in front of the children.
Gifts - Try to agree with the other parent what you are each going to buy for the children; there's nothing worse than getting them the same thing or that feeling of one-upmanship. If your relationship with the other parent is reasonable, one option would be to give joint presents to your children to avoid competition; some parents also organise presents for their children to give to the other parent.
Plan ahead - Propose and hopefully agree a schedule of dates, handover times and places well in advance. Both parents should accept that there needs to be a degree of flexibility, but within a framework so that the children know what they are doing and when. Logistics and the practical steps for the handover of the child from one parent to another can sometimes be a struggle, so think about what your children want and what will be least disruptive for them. How long will it take to get from A to B? How much is it going to cost and who will pay, if trains or planes are required? If you and your ex both want to take your children to an event on the same day, talk about it well in advance to work out if both can be accommodated. What if your ex- partner has got last-minute tickets to the Christmas panto, but you have already organised to visit Grandma? Try to think about things objectively and what is best for your children. Remember that you will both need to agree in advance if your children have to miss any school time or be taken out of the country.
Inform and be informed - If you are the parent who has day-to-day contact with the school, keep the other parent informed about important dates and school events, such as the Nativity play and carol concert. Exchange as much information as possible about your holiday and travel plans with your former partner. Make sure you share the details of flights, timings and other transport arranged if the children are going skiing or visiting relatives over the Christmas period. If there is a concern that your children will not be returned following a period of contact abroad, speak to a lawyer and ensure safeguards are in place such as a written assurance the children will be returned on a certain date, and details of the return flight.
Telephone - Parents can often disagree about when and how telephone contact should take place over the festive period. It may be difficult to fit this into a busy Christmas schedule, so try to agree in advance whether your children will telephone the other parent every day and the best time for it. Can you use FaceTime or Skype so that the children see their other parent on Christmas Day?
Have fun - Changes to the Christmas routine following a separation can be especially difficult for children, so make the most of your time with them, have fun and create happy new memories and traditions for future Christmases to come.