A holiday time share—a good or bad idea?

Even for divorcing couples who get along and are working towards an amiable resolution, holiday visitation can be a contentious point of discussion. And unless you have been divorced before, questions are many: where for Thanksgiving?

Where will the kids be on Christmas morning to open up presents from Santa?

What are appropriate arrangements for the Jewish high holy days?

What about spending time with grandparents during the holidays?

Some divorcing couples will try to keep things as close as possible to the pre-divorce practices for the sake of the children — even to the point of spending time as a family during the holiday. But for most couples, the only solution is to try to divide up their time with the children over the holidays. For example, the kids spend Christmas Eve and morning with Mom and Christmas dinner and the rest of the day with Dad. Or, the kids are with Dad Thanksgiving until 3 pm and with Mom from 3 pm through bedtime.

From what I have seen as an attorney over the past 25 years, holiday sharing, in an effort to keep things close to the same as before the divorce, does not work over the long-term. In my opinion, you are much better off defining one holiday as Mom’s and one as Dad’s (e.g. the kids go to Mom’s for Christmas and half of vacation week and Dad’s for the rest of the week and New Year’s).

Where sharing can and does work is for religious celebrations that involve multiple days (e.g. Chanukah, Passover, etc.) when it’s important to both parents to spend some time with the kids each year. That should be part of the discussion during mediation or collaborative divorce.

That is not to say holiday sharing cannot work at all (for some couples and families it does). Yet based solely on couples I’ve worked with, the ones who most often end up back in front of the judge to alter the holiday schedule are the ones who try to divide holidays.

What starts out with the best of intentions can end up with one parent feeling slighted if they perceive their time with the children to be shorter than or less valuable than the time allotted to their ex. In a worse case scenario, this can result in an annual dissatisfaction around the holiday that is invariably communicated to the children, ruining the holiday for them as well.

Perhaps worse than that is the shared schedule puts the children in bad situations. For example, they end up sitting at two Thanksgiving dinner tables and aren’t hungry for more food at the second dinner. Or, the entire day is spent opening presents. That can be overwhelming to younger children, particularly at the end of the day.

The best solution I’ve seen is for couples to create a schedule for holiday visitation that alternates from year to year. One year the kids are with Dad for Thanksgiving, the next year with Mom, and so forth and so on. Same with Christmas or New Years.  Since each parent has exactly the same schedule for the holiday on alternating years there is a lot less to argue about.

In my opinion, alternating also works better than sharing holidays because it helps families to accept the reality that things are different now. That does not mean worse. Just different.

Accepting the new reality helps parents develop new holiday traditions that can be just as meaningful as the traditional ones (e.g. opening presents when they come to Dad’s house for New Year’s). It also forces parents to put their relationship with their children during the holidays first, before meeting extended family obligations.

One of the things I always tell clients is that a divorce agreement has to not only be one that works for your family now but five-to-10 years from now. If the holidays are important to you, then it should not be a detail of the agreement to be glossed over. Many couples think they can work it out on their own. The divorced couples who can do that are few and far between.

Having a definitive holiday schedule reduces the likelihood of a return trip to court to alter the agreement and creates the foundation of the new holiday traditions that divorced parents and their children will figure out. That, in turn, will help families enjoy and get the most out of their holiday time together.