Resolving Holiday Custody Disputed in Maryland

Resolving Holiday Custody Disputes

Living by a visitation schedule is a difficult adjustment for recently separated parents and their children. During and after a divorce, it is crucial to develop a holiday custody schedule that allows reliability for children and parents. When parents establish an agreed holiday visitation schedule, both parents get to spend time during the holidays with their children. However, unfortunately, many divorcing parents have heated disputes about holiday visitation and if not resolved quickly, holiday disputes can make the holidays difficult for everyone. Resolving Holiday Custody Disputes is something The Law Offices of Josephia Rouse can help you with. 

Some of the most common questions we receive from divorcing parents during the holidays include: how do I establish a holiday visitation schedule? How do I ensure my children and I will get to share in the joy of the holidays and our traditions? What holiday visitation schedule can I expect in a Maryland divorce court child custody case?

Nearly half of the marriages in Maryland ended in divorce and holidays are one of the most difficult times for families in divorce. However, the disruption of divorce and custody disputes during the holidays can be greatly reduced by establishing a reliable holiday custody schedule for Christmas and New Year’s. Our Fierce Advocates for families facing divorce in Maryland have seen and helped establish many kinds of holiday custody schedules. Prior to agreeing to a holiday visitation schedule, you should consider the following issues:

  • Family traditions and scheduled gatherings for your family
  • Holiday travel plans and timing
  • The wisdom of traveling on an actual holiday
  • Potential new family traditions to begin after divorce
  • The importance of your children spending time with both parents during holidays 

Two Approaches to Holiday Custody Schedules

  1. Divide the Holiday “Days”, i.e. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
  2. Divide the winter break by days during the break, not just the holidays

Maryland schools release children for Christmas break days before the Christmas holiday and resume after New Year’s Day. Maryland schools also release children from school for Thanksgiving and the days following the holiday. When parents only focus on the actual holiday, instead of the entire break, they may give up more time with their children than they should in a holiday visitation schedule. 

Holiday Visitation Tips for Non-Custodial Parents

It is important to carefully review your regular custody schedule and how it compares to your holiday visitation schedule, if you are the non-custodial parent, i.e. your child or children spend fewer overnights with you than the other parent. You will likely benefit from treating the holiday break as one block of time and dividing accordingly if you have Maryland standard visitation, every other weekend visitation. As the non-custodial parent, you are better served to treat the holiday break as a whole without focusing on dividing Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 

As a non-custodial parent, you will get more time with your child or children by insisting on visitation for at least half of the holiday break. When you have visitation for half of the holiday school break or more, you guarantee maximum time with your children without interfering with school activities or worrying about homework. 

Holiday Visitation Tips for Custodial Parents

As the primary custodial parent, i.e. your child or children spend more overnights with you than their other parent, you should focus on enforcing the regular custodial schedule; whether you abide by the Maryland Standard Visitation Schedule, Maryland Modified Standard Visitation Schedule, Maryland Long Distance Visitation Schedule, or some other agreed Visitation Schedule. 

As the primary custodial parent, you have most of the overnights during the school year. You have the liberty of focusing on seeking overnights and time with your children during the holiday season that means the most to you, as you will have substantial time with your child or children immediately after the holiday break is over. 

Meaning: you could give the non-custodial parent more time or expand visitation during the holiday break in exchange for having the most important time with your children. For example, if your children waking up in your home on Christmas morning is very important to you, then you could give the non-custodial parent more visitation during Christmas break to secure your children waking up in your home on Christmas morning.

Common Maryland Christmas Visitation Schedules 

  1. Divide the Holiday Break in half: one parent picks up the children on the last day of school and exchanges the children on December 24th at 6:00 p.m., at which time the other parent will have custody of the children until they return to school and the school year visitation schedule resumes. This holiday visitation schedule is not equal, as the number of days out of school before Christmas and after Christmas are typically not equal.
  2. Dividing Christmas Holiday only: in this holiday visitation schedule, the custodial parent and non-custodial parent maintain their existing visitation schedule, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In this holiday visitation schedule, one parent has the children beginning on December 24 at 9:00 a.m. and transfers the children on December 25th at 2:00 p.m. or some other time on the morning of Christmas Day. The parent receiving custody on Christmas Day has custodial time on Christmas Day until December 26th in the evening, at which time custody and visitation return to the existing visitation schedule. In this holiday visitation schedule that involves specific days of visitation, it is important to keep in mind the weekends surrounding Christmas, as that may result in you missing visitation that you would otherwise receive, i.e. custodial parent having the children on your weekend of visitation, if Christmas or December 26th fall on the weekend. 
  3. Alternate Holiday Visitation: this holiday visitation schedule is somewhat rare; however, it provides for expanded holiday visitation every other year. In this scenario, one parent has custody of the minor children for the entire holiday break or all of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The exchange dates, times, and location are important to reach an agreement on in this and any holiday visitation schedule. As an example in other holidays that are given to one parent alone on alternating years, Labor Day Weekend vacation plans can be ruined, if one parent believed they had custody of the children for the entire weekend, when in fact they only had visitation for Labor Day itself. 
  4. Agreement to Work Out Holiday Visitation: failure to plan is planning to fail. This maxim is as true in holiday visitation as it is in combat. Parents cannot simply agree to work out holidays each and every season. One parent will always feel cheated in the amount of time with their children in this arrangement and it is impossible to make plans in the future for vacations or other plans for upcoming holidays. 

It is perfectly fine to deviate from the court-ordered holiday visitation schedule, if it is for the best interests of the children and their relationship with each parent; however, it is not okay to lack any schedule. Parents often include provisions in a Joint Custody Plan and Divorce Decree that they will “share holidays” or similar non-specific language, this is never a good answer to deciding holiday visitation schedules in a divorce or custody dispute. 

The best answer for establishing a holiday visitation schedule order for parents that want flexibility is to choose one of the schedules listed above and agree to deviate, so long as both parents continue to have substantial time during the holidays with the children. Additionally, a provision in a Joint Custody Plan to mediate prior to filing any motion to modify can force the parties to sit down in a professional setting to discuss a holiday visitation schedule dispute, without a full-blown legal battle.

Establishing a formal joint custody plan with specific provisions for holiday visitation allows a fallback, if the parties have a difficult time reaching an agreement on holiday visitation. Parents with young children often remarry or at the least will have to deal with holiday visitation for nearly 18 years. Therefore, establishing a specific holiday visitation schedule protects your time with your children during the holidays and protects your sanity in dealing with holiday visitation.

Holiday Visitation with Young Children 

Holiday visitation schedules for children that are not yet in school are not limited by school schedules or activities during the winter break that families facing holiday visitation with older children experience. Therefore, holiday visitation schedules for young children can be arranged however the parties choose and the family law judge determines is in the best interest of the child. However, as stated above, young children will eventually get older and their future school schedule and obligations should be considered in entering a final holiday visitation schedule. 

Protect your Holiday Traditions from Divorce

You are not alone if you are facing divorce or separation during the Christmas season. Yes, this first holiday season after separation or divorce will be more difficult for you and your children; however, children are very resilient, I know from experience, and will quickly adapt to the change in most cases. 

It is important to identify and protect important family traditions for your children. Although you may not be able to do the activity you want with your children on the exact day and time you want; there is no reason you cannot continue every family tradition you find dear with your children. Take the time to make sure this is a wonderful and memorable (in a good way) holiday season for your children. Avoid the easy road of skipping holiday events and time with family.

Instead of dreading holiday visitation and holiday activities with your children, without your spouse, take the opposite approach; let your children pick a new Christmas tree or get a live tree from a tree farm if your kids have not done that before. Take your children on a short overnight trip, so long as you do not violate the temporary orders of visitation in your divorce. 

Moving on with life after divorce is important for your children’s development. It cannot be overstated that new holiday traditions and/or consistency in continuing holiday traditions play an important role in your children peacefully transitioning to splitting the holidays between parents. 

What do I do when Holiday Custody Disputes Happen?

Most Maryland divorce and custody orders include a holiday visitation schedule, which specifies which days the parties’ children will spend with which parent. However, as stated above when the holiday custody orders of the Court are vague or state “reasonable parenting time” disputes often arise over holiday visitation.  The best first step when holiday visitation disputes arise is to look to the existing order of the Court. Oftentimes, parties forget the specific terms of their holiday visitation schedule, and simply reminding your former spouse of the agreement will settle the visitation dispute. 

However, some cases are not so simple and parties refuse to abide by the agreed or contested order of the Court concerning holiday visitation. In these cases, a mediator or an experienced Maryland family law attorney may be necessary to help you resolve the holiday visitation dispute. 

An experienced Maryland family law attorney may be able to write a demand letter to your former spouse to convince them to follow the existing holiday visitation schedule and avoid the costs of litigation. Unfortunately, we have seen parties that refuse to listen to reason and Court Orders, in which case we can assist you in seeking to enforce your visitation rights or even seek emergency custody, if appropriate. Motions to enforce visitation are often heard in a short period of time and can save you from missing out on your holidays with your children. 

Planning to Avoid Holiday Visitation Conflicts 

Early planning and communication with your former spouse can help you avoid costly conflicts over holiday disputes or in the worst case allow you to address conflicts with a family law attorney before the holidays arrive. Set holiday plans before Christmas arrives can also give your children something to look forward to and ease the stress of uncertainty. 

Addressing potential holiday visitation disputes before Christmas gives you the opportunity to explore multiple dispute resolutions prior to filing something in family court. If both parties will have a holiday party on the same date this year or every year, a discussion before the day arrives can lead to an agreement that will give both parties the opportunity to plan events that your children can attend at the holidays. 

Holiday Gifts Disputes in Divorce

Many families, especially those with means, often have heated disputes during the holidays over the gifts purchased for their children. Gifts are an important part of American holidays and differences in parents’ ability and/or willingness to spend on children’s gifts create tension in many families during the holidays. We advise considering the following in determining a plan for holiday gift giving to your children:

  • Can you and your former spouse establish a gift budget for each child?
  • Can you and your former spouse purchase your child’s largest gift together? This option avoids a child receiving a Nintendo and a PlayStation for one holiday.
  • Are you able to do your gift exchange together?
  • Consider coordinating the gifts most important to your children to stop double purchases.
  • Assist your children in creating or buying a thoughtful gift for your former spouse.

Conclusion on Holiday Custody Disputes

There is no question that holiday visitation and custody disputes at this time of year are one of the most difficult parts of a divorce. However, by following the advice in this article, early planning, and identifying the taking steps to protect the most important events and holidays with your children, you can still have a very Merry Christmas despite being divorced. In fact, many of our clients and their children have merrier Christmases after divorce, as the years of conflict between parents are limited or go away after divorce for many parents.

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