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Tips to navigate Christmas for separated families

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If you are a separated parent and do not yet have a clear plan about who will have the children on particular days over the Christmas and school holiday period, this article has been written with you in mind.  

Navigating Christmas as a separated family can become stressful, so we have compiled some tips to help you avoid the common mistakes people make at this time of year, so you can have an enjoyable Christmas as a separated family.

Why getting started is important

Every year parents come to us seeking advice because they have been unable to reach an agreement with their former partner about who will have the children and when over the Christmas period. 

Plan as far in advance as you can.  Working out who will have the children, when, can be difficult to organise and if left too late in the piece, it can cause unnecessary anxiety for everyone involved.

Get started now to avoid the risk of the worst-case scenario. Let’s say you and your child’s other parent are unable to come to an agreement despite a number of attempts. If you are at an impasse, and if you require a Court to decide, there is a deadline for filing your application. That deadline is always set as the second Friday in November.

The Court is particularly busy at this time of year, and that has been made worse this year because of the extra demand on services created by the Covid-19 pandemic.  The absolute latest date to file your application this year is Friday 13 November. The Court may refuse to urgently list any applications filed after that date, so families who leave their planning too late, can find themselves without a pathway to resolve their parenting arrangements.

Negotiating with your child’s other parent

If you cannot come to an agreement between yourselves you might consider engaging with a mediation service. A mediator is an impartial trained dispute resolution person who brings parents together with the express goal of assisting you to come to an agreement.  The most common outcome from mediation is a Parenting Plan. It is good as a stopgap to establish a plan for Christmas and to determine what should happen through the school holidays including travel arrangements.

Alternatively, you may wish to speak to a lawyer to seek advice about how to best approach your negotiations and minimise the risk of going to Court.

What is the process?

If you can reach an agreement, some families are content to rely upon their verbal agreement.  Of course, if tension arises at any point, people can change their minds about that agreement. This can create additional stress and conflict.  

For those who need a little more certainty, consider a Parenting Plan. It is a document that outlines the agreed arrangements and is signed and dated by both parents and can be prepared quickly. A Parenting Plan is a construct of the legislation and can be considered by a Court and Government Agencies such as the Child Support Agency. It is a legally admissible document as evidence of what is agreed at a point in time, but it is not legally enforceable.

The third pathway is to seek Orders. Orders are legally enforceable. There are two types of orders:

  1. A Consent Order is made by agreement and sets out in legally enforceable terms, the details and obligations each party has accepted.  That document is then provided to the Court (with another document setting out relevant background) and will (hopefully) be approved by a Registrar and made into consent orders.   
  2. A Judge made Order, made after a hearing has occurred and where a Judge is asked to decide what Orders should be made, in the best interests of the children.  

Tips When Trying to Negotiate

We help families negotiate these matters every day and can share our insights into what we know works for separated families. When you meet to determine your plans for the children over the Christmas and holiday period, consider these things.

  1. If you are sharing Christmas Day, consider the impact on the children. Little ones tire quickly with the excitement of Christmas (many waking early too!) and may not “last” to the end of the day.  It is ideal if you can limit the number of handovers they experience and consider travel time – spending a lot of time in the car is less than ideal.
  2. If your children are at an age where their views should be taken into account, you might ask them how they see their Christmas unfolding. This can be a good starting point and can make negotiations more focused on what will make your child’s Christmas enjoyable.  But be careful not to place pressure on children to respond in a way that might meet your preferences and recognise they may miss the idea of the way Christmas used to be.
  3. Be respectful of the other parent’s traditions over Christmas and accommodate the spirit of giving. For some people, Christmas Eve is the big event and Christmas Day is less important to them. Some flexibility and generosity at this important time of year may encourage more co-operation for future discussions.

But what happens if you both want the same time? 

What tends to work well in this instance is an alternate year approach. One parent has the desired time this year and the other will have that time the following year. That is reversed the following year and swapped every alternate year.

Often we see Christmas Day cut in the middle somewhere. One parent might have the children from midday on Christmas Eve through to mid morning on Christmas Day, with the other parent then having the children from mid-morning to Boxing Day. 

In families where people are interstate there will sometimes be an agreement that they get the week of Christmas every alternate year. It is really about what suits you and your children best.

Get started

If you can’t reach an agreement about your parenting arrangements for the Christmas period, secure a mediation service quickly so you minimise the risk of having to file an application to the Court. We can assist you in your negotiations and to formalise your Parenting Plan or to have Consent Orders made. Christmas need not be a stressful time for you, so if you haven’t already, do start your negotiations early.

DDCS Lawyers specialise in all aspects of family law and assist with the creation of Parenting Plans and Consent Orders. If you need assistance, contact our team on (02) 6212 7600 to book a consultation.