It may only be October but many parents are beginning to feel the stress of preparing for Santa's arrival. For some it will be sheer panic associated with getting hold of that much desired toy to avoid seeing disappointment etched on their children's faces on Christmas morning. For separated parents, however, a whole different set of worries can creep in- what should the arrangements be for their children over the festive period?

The general rule for separated parents

The law regarding the arrangements for children moving between households is both clear and abstract at the same time- the best interests of the child are paramount. What that actually means is that the children's welfare must come first. Regardless of how upset Mum or Dad might be, careful consideration must be given to what is the best possible outcome for the child.

Is there a norm for how the Christmas arrangements should look?

The simple answer is "no". There is no "one size fits all" solution to what should happen. What works for one family will cause chaos in another. Children of different ages will have different expectations from the Festive period. Young children may want to stay in the house they call the main place of residence on Christmas Eve in case Santa gets lost. Teenagers may want to spend more time in whichever household is closer to their best friend's place of residence. In some blended families there may be three or more households whose arrangements are all intertwined because of children moving around between their parents.

It is generally accepted that children should spend time with both of their parents on or around Christmas Day but the precise detail surrounding that is entirely fluid. In some families, children spend Christmas Eve with one parent and Christmas Day with the other. In other families the change in household takes place on Boxing Day. Sometimes a child will move between their parents' homes at a convenient time in the middle of Christmas Day. None of those arrangements is "wrong". Some families stick to the same arrangements every year. Others alternate the arrangements so that each parent experiences different parts of the festive period each year.

For some families, perhaps those where one parent (or both) works shifts or works overseas, different arrangements may be in place each year. Like most situations involving children, the arrangements for the festive period can forever be evolving. As well as the few special days around Christmas itself, the school holidays as a whole will require to be considered.

Factors to consider with Christmas holidays

The most obvious one is whether any proposed arrangements would work on a practical level. There is little point in arguing that a child should spend half the school holidays with each parent if one of them is due to be working overseas for 10 days of the school holidays. Similarly demanding time with a child on Christmas Day when the parent knows that he or she will be working then is unhelpful. Common sense simply must prevail.

An older child may be very vocal about what he or she wants. If their proposed solution affords each parent quality time with them and it can be accommodated then their wishes may present the perfect solution. Parents (and indeed a court) are not, however, obliged to do what their offspring suggest. Their wishes are merely something to be considered. Families celebrate the festive period in different ways. Certain traditions may emerge over time. Careful thought should be given to how things can be managed so as to allow the children to participate in as many fun filled moments with family and friends as is possible.

What happens if parents cannot agree?

It is not uncommon for parents to struggle to agree on matters affecting their children. The Christmas holidays are unique. Unlike other holiday periods, Christmas cannot simply be moved to another date or week. If parents reach an impasse, the court can be asked to determine what the arrangements for the children will be over the Christmas holidays. Any contact arrangements which are usually in place during term time will likely be suspended by the court and a new regime will be put in place.

The Sheriff will have a difficult job on his or her hands and unless there are issues relating to the children's welfare, will likely order that the children are permitted to spend significant periods of time in each household during the festive break. It is important to note that this does not always mean that children will spend equal time with each parent. When considering what is in the children's best interests, the Sheriff will be more focussed on ensuing that the children get the best out of both households. That may require there to be an unequal division of time if it means that children get to spend time with siblings and other family members too.

What should I do if I can't agree the arrangements for Christmas this year?

Although it is still only October, time is of the essence. Obtaining legal advice from a solicitor who is experienced in family law sooner rather than later, is crucial. While an attempt to agree the arrangements should always be made, if litigation is inevitable, that cannot be left until the last minute- much like the dreaded Christmas shopping….


Donna McKay

Legal Director