Making care and contact arrangements for children over the holidays can be a difficult task for separated parents. However, as difficult as it may be, you are better to address it early. Doing so can save you a whole lot of stress and worry down the track.
How you make these arrangements depends on your situation. If you already have a parenting order or parenting plan which covers who will care for the children and when, then unless you and the other parent both clearly agree to do something else, you should stick to those terms.
If you have an informal arrangement and have not yet made decisions about what will happen over the holiday period, you should start by communicating with the other parent. That way you can try to reach an agreement you are both happy with. This can be done directly, via telephone or email, via another family member etc – whatever works for you. If you are unable to communicate directly with the other parent, you could engage a lawyer to assist you.
You need to decide on the best holiday arrangements for your particular children. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – some parents continue the usual care arrangements and let Christmas and New Years days lie where they fall, others go week-about over the school holidays, some alternate Christmas and New Years each year, others split the days in half, and so on.
When thinking about what will work for your family, it is important to be realistic. If you live 10 hours apart, splitting Christmas day in half is unlikely to work. Think about the broader picture – what traditions do each parent’s wider family have? Are there any special gatherings that the children would benefit from being a part of? When are you each able to take time off work?
It is important to be child-focused in your decision making. Remember that if the Family Court were asked to decide what should happen, they would aim to make arrangements that best support the child’s welfare and best interests, so that should be your focus also.
How do you go about reaching these agreements?
If you are not able to do so directly, Family Dispute Resolution (‘FDR’) mediation is usually the first step. It allows you to discuss the issues and what each of you wants, with the help of a trained independent mediator.
Other options include negotiating via lawyers, or applying to the Family Court. However, unless there are particularly urgent circumstances, it is probably too late to get a hearing before Christmas. You are also usually expected to have completed the Ministry of Justice’s Parenting Through Separation course before applying to the Court.
It is best to speak with a family lawyer about your situation, and get specific advice about your options.
What can you do when things go wrong on the day?
That depends on what arrangements you have. If you have a parenting order that the other party does not comply with, then you can take steps to enforce it.
In the first instance the Police may help you to try and resolve the situation and have the other parent comply with the order, but they do not have the power to physically uplift a child without a warrant. If the other parent is still refusing to comply, an application needs to be made to the Family Court for a warrant – but that is a last resort.
Keep in mind that it is an offence to intentionally breach, or prevent compliance with, a parenting order without reasonable cause, and you can be criminally charged. There are also various other things the Family Court can do in this situation – including changing or cancelling the order, or ordering someone to enter into a monetary bond to ensure future compliance and so on. See Breaches of Parenting Orders for further information.
Urgent Parenting Orders
If you do not already have a parenting order, you may be able to apply for one urgently, “without notice”, depending on the circumstances.
This is where you ask the Court to make an order without the other parent first knowing, or being able to have a say. They are usually served with the paperwork after the Court has already made a decision. Given the potential unfairness of this to the other (unheard) parent, they can usually only be made when the delay that would result from making a normal, “on notice”, application could result in serious injury, hardship or a risk to someone’s safety.
Access to the Family Court over the holiday period
While you will not be able to access the Family Court on Christmas Day, the Court provides a national service for urgent applications over the Christmas and New Year period. This will not cover the statutory days (Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Day, or the 2nd of January), but there will be Judges available during certain hours on other days to deal with urgent matters.
In summary, early discussions about the holidays will leave you best placed to have a stress-free Christmas. If that is not possible, then getting early advice and starting the FDR or legal process sooner rather than later should help you reach a solution.
If you have any questions about these issues, please feel free to contact our Wellington based family lawyers: