The Christmas period should be a joyous time for the whole family, a time to eat, drink and be merry. But, for co-parents who have gone through divorce or separation, it can quickly become turbulent.
With only two-thirds of children living with both parents, unique family arrangements are becoming more and more common, giving rise to discussions around how best to manage contact arrangements.
These arrangements are put in place to work for the parents, but most importantly the children, ensuring the whole family know how much time they will have contact and in what form.
What are Contact Arrangements?
Contact Arrangements set out how much time and input each parent will have in their children’s life following separation. These can vary anywhere from an informal agreement between the parents, a recommendation made in mediation or by a solicitor, or a Child Arrangement Order issued by the courts.
The co-parents will agree on how long the children will stay with each parent, and whether that contact is in person, by call or by letter.
Around Christmas, contact arrangements may become harder to uphold, but these top tips should help parents get prepared for the festive period in time for a happy Christmas
1. Put the Children First
Prioritising your children’s needs is the core of all contact arrangements, whether that be an informal agreement or one issued by the courts.
It can be difficult to balance putting the children first, but it is important for co-parents to find a solution without burdening their children or making them choose which parent they’d prefer to stay with at Christmas. This could place undue pressure on the child and in turn, the whole family.
Think about what will benefit your children and let those drive discussions to come to a compromise.
Only a court order is legally enforced, therefore it is key to find an arrangement that both parents are happy with, accounting for any disruption around the festive period.
For instance, if your child usually visits their other parent on a weekend, with Christmas falling on a Sunday, you may want to change your agreement so that you can spend time with them for one weekend. The compromise would be agreeing to change that scheduled in-person weekend to a phone call, or scheduling extra time after the holidays to make up for it.
Where there are challenges to agreeing, a family solicitor or mediator can assist with coming to an agreement suiting both parents, without the time and cost of seeking a court order.
3. Consider mediation
Court orders are considered a ‘last resort’ option when it comes to Contact Arrangements. It is understandable in cases where parents cannot come to an agreement between themselves.
Family law mediators can help facilitate a Mediation, Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM). These meetings are considered before a court order, and courts expect parents to have tried mediation before taking legal action.
Accredited mediators are unbiased in discussions and can help parents decide where the children will be on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. They will also help decide how long children will spend with each parent on the day itself. Co-parents can go through mediation separately, and at the end, a non-legally binding document will be drafted with what was agreed.
If a parent is worried about upholding the agreement, a draft court order can be drawn up by a family solicitor to be approved by the court.
Court orders can be lengthy and there is no guarantee your wishes will be granted depending on what the Judge decides, therefore, agreeing in mediation is a formal yet flexible solution to decide where your children will be around the festive season.
4. Consider alternatives to court
With Christmas rapidly approaching, it can be a scramble to decide on Contact Arrangements. Whilst compromising informally or reaching a decision through mediation would be best, we understand that some relationships can be complicated and can often fall down, creating tension.
Where relationships have broken down, parents should consider planning ahead through a Child’s Arrangement Order to avoid stress and uncertainty.
The courts will be able to create a schedule detailing where the children will be at Christmas. For instance, spending each year alternating between parents. Even with a pre-existing order in place, a substantive order can be included to run alongside the main arrangement to incorporate holidays.
If mediation fails, and parents are still unable to agree, an interim order can be put in place by the courts. This is a short-term arrangement where the child’s welfare could be at risk and an order needs to be issued quickly.
Parents should be aware that a CAFCASS will be appointed to assess the welfare of the children and the circumstances around the dispute, by whom the judge will be guided.
5. Plan Ahead
It might be worth thinking about all the major holidays including Christmas, New Year, Easter, and Summer holidays, where the ordinary schedule could be disrupted.
Planning ahead can prevent unforeseen tension within the family and give additional time to get the appropriate arrangements in place for years to come.
Navigating Family Law with Beyond Legal
Dealing with contact arrangements and family matters involving children can be hard, but you don’t have to do it alone.
At Beyond Legal, we are experts in dealing with family disputes, helping to navigate the challenges with advice and support. Get a free consultation for family law services in Newton Abbot and Tiverton with Beyond Legal today.