Child arrangements during Christmas and COVID
As we approach the end of what has been a truly eventful year, most of us are hoping the Government will relax lockdown rules so we can spend Christmas with family and friends.
Time with loved ones has never felt so important, but, for separated parents, Christmas can be a time of tension, as plans need to be agreed about where and how children will spend the festive season.
Never mind the need to factor in the impact of COVID19 and, as yet unknown, lockdown restrictions.
So, we asked our Regional Director for Yorkshire, Rachel Roberts, to share her advice on child arrangements during Christmas and COVID.
COVID, child arrangements and Christmas
When Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown back in March, one of the things we noticed at Stowe was a sharp increase in enquiries from separated parents who were struggling to agree how to manage the impact of the pandemic on the current child arrangements in place.
This increase in enquiry levels continues as lockdown rules have become more complicated and there have been increased periods of self-isolation as children returned to school.
As we approach Christmas, we are seeing a flurry of clients getting in touch for help to try and resolve arrangements for the festive season. This happens every year, but this year, with the impact of Covid and parents often having different ideas around what degree of mingling with other households is likely to be acceptable, the number of concerned parents making enquiries is higher than ever.
Before I turn to my tips on how best to manage arrangements, there are a couple of key points from the Government and family law sector that are certainly at the forefront of my mind when advising clients.
In September, a leading family judge made it clear that parties should only be bringing disputes over children to court where absolutely necessary. The judge went on to criticise parents for asking the court to micro-manage children arrangements.
The view from the court is clear – where possible you should be sorting these things out yourself.
It is too early to tell what lockdown restrictions will be in place at Christmas. However, to date, the Government has been clear that none of the restrictions prevents children from moving between separated parents, provided they are not self-isolating.
It seems unlikely that this will change, and CAFCASS (the government body that advises the court on children disputes) has stressed the need for children to maintain their usual routine.
All that said, it is naive to think that difficulties will not arise, and the following guidance may help avoid unhappiness at Christmas.
Tips for making child arrangements this Christmas
Preparation is key
With the added unknown of potential lockdown restrictions, trying to put in place arrangements for Christmas in advance is tricky.
If you do not have plans in place now is the time to start. Talk to your ex-partner and agree on arrangements that work for you all.
Some clients I have worked with agreed that the children would spend Christmas Eve at one home and then return to the other for lunch on Christmas Day through until the 27th.
Other clients decided that they would spend the whole festive period with one parent and the next year spend it with the other, alternating between the two.
It is a personal choice based on what works for your family, but also the age of the children, location and how amicable you are.
And this year, more than any other, be prepared to be flexible as plans may need to change.
Focus on the children
First and foremost, put the children at the heart of the plans you make. A different type of Christmas can still be a good Christmas. Talk about the positive: two Christmas Days, two sets of presents etc.
Make sure you share your plans with the children. Depending on the age of the children, ask them what they would like? Older children need to feel they have a voice.
Once in place, sharing plans with the children means they know where they will be throughout the holiday, and the routine will make them feel safe and secure.
Creating a visual plan can help as dates can be difficult for a child to understand. One client created a Christmas themed wall planner for their younger children. A tech-savvy teenager may prefer a joint Google calendar.
Be fair to the other parent
If this is your first year as a separated parent, this will all feel very raw and difficult. It is likely that you will both be dreading not spending Christmas entirely with your children.
Even though it can be difficult, try to think about the impact of any plans on your former partner. Ask yourself if you would be happy with the proposed arrangements next year? If the answer is no, then maybe they should be reconsidered.
Stick to the plan
This year will require a certain level of flexibility and last-minute changes as lockdown restrictions are not clear, but where possible, it is important that, whatever arrangements you come to, you both stick to the plan.
Last-minute changes can cause feelings of disruption and uncertainty for children. And, whilst flexibility is an essential part of positive child arrangements, it is important to maintain consistency and provide stability.
Get advice early, if needed
Christmas is chaotic and organising a co-parenting schedule on top of everything else is never going to be easy, especially if communication between you and your ex-partner is difficult.
If you are struggling this year, take advice from a family lawyer who can try to assist in negotiating an agreement.
If you cannot reach an agreement, mediation can help as the presence of a 3rd party often eases tensions and result in finding common ground.
Mediation is still taking place via video conferencing, and many of our clients have reported that it is easier than being in the same room as their former partner.
Court proceedings are possible but should be used as a last resort, and, due to the current strain on courts from the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that you have any prospect of a contested hearing before Christmas.
Hopefully, these tips, combined with some careful planning, compromise and putting the children first, will help you and your ex-partner move forward towards a harmonious Christmas.
Get in touch
If you would like any advice on child arrangements during Christmas and COVID, or other family law issues, please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here.
This article was first published in 2018 and has since been updated.