By Gerry Muriello
You would be hard pressed to find a school-aged child who does no look forward to Spring Break. A whole week off from the daily grind for no good reason? Sign me up! It’s a time for sleeping late, playing with friends, or even going away on vacation. But for children of divorced or separated parents, it can be a stressful time. Unless they have parents who work together well and have a good plan, what should be a week of fun can be a difficult time.
Parenting Plans or Custody Agreements should include a schedule for not only “regular” time-sharing with the children, but a comprehensive schedule with provisions for sharing or alternating holidays and breaks. Some breaks are longer than others (Winter Break, Summer Break), and lend themselves to splitting up the time so the children can be with both parents. Shorter holiday breaks like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving are more often alternated year to year. But what about Spring Break?
Spring Break is typically 9 days off from school – the five-day school week and the surrounding weekends. It is a perfect time for vacations – travel to out-of-state relatives, long stays at the beach, or even visiting destinations out of the country. Sometimes, it can be no more than five weekdays with no school and no plans. It is often the case in divorced /separated families that both parents have work, and have little to no vacation time to take to spend with their children. This situation should be addressed the same way you would if you were the vacationing type.
Whatever the parents’ situation, if there is no formal Parenting Plan or Custody Agreement in place, conflict can often arise. One parent may want to plan a trip with the children, but it will infringe on the other parent’s usual time. When parents do not have a formal agreement, backed by a court order, there is little recourse for the parent who is “losing” time with their children if they go away.
If the parents get along and work well together, communicating well in advance of the break about a schedule and possible plans will often be enough. No parent wants to be the one to say the children cannot go visit their grandparents or see the Grand Canyon. And no parent should ever put the other parent in that position. So talk well in advance – work out a plan and put something in writing before you go book flights and outings. And never, EVER, tell the children of your plans before informing the other parent! Be open, be cooperative, and put the children first. Check. Your. Ego. If no agreement can be reached, or worse, if the other parent engages in sabotaging behavior, it is probably time to consult counsel an initiate appropriate legal proceedings to ensure it doesn’t happen again. A good Parenting Plan or Custody Agreement will provide the certainty you and your children will need going forward.
Sometimes I meet a potential client who processed their divorce or custody case on their own, together with the other parent, without the aid of legal counsel. While this is a positive, there are often pitfalls. They may have a formal agreement, backed by a court order, but it is too vague to be of any guidance when there are disagreements. I’ve seen so many self-made agreements that read “as the parents agree” as provisions regarding holidays and breaks. This may work for some of the most functional of ex’s, and may only work for a little while for others. If there are extensive or repeated disagreements over every holiday, or over the same break every year, you may have legal grounds to return to court to modify your agreement. If a provision in a plan is so vague it cannot be enforced, most family law judges will want you to fix it.
If you are currently going through a divorce or custody proceeding, please pay close attention to the development of your Parenting Plan. Whether you have an attorney guiding you or not, take this very slowly. Think through as many options and contingencies as possible. For Spring Break, consider alternating each parent having the entire break from year to year, splitting the break in half so each has at least one weekend, or stay on your “regular” schedule if that is what works best. If there is a reason one parent wants the entire break every year (an annual family reunion out of state, for example), don’t be afraid to give it up. You can always make up the time by having an extra week in the summer, or having a couple of the shorter holiday breaks every year. At any time before you walk into the courtroom for trial, you have control over the outcome.
Communication, creativity, and compromise – this is how you ensure you get to a schedule that will work for EVERYONE, for years to come.
Until next time, from The Dad Zone.