Who’s Got the Thanksgiving Turkey … and Who’s Got the Kids?

Summer just officially ended this week. We’re not even to Halloween, but the reality is, if you’re a divorced couple with kids, you’d better be thinking now about Thanksgiving and those December holidays!

The unfortunate reality of divorce is that the kids can’t be in two places at once for the holidays. As part of a custody agreement, parents have to figure out who is getting the kids over Thanksgiving and Winter Break … and for how long.

For custody-sharing parents, those long breaks in November and December can be fraught with tension. Thanksgiving sometimes seems to sneak up on you as school is still in session and the weather is still so warm that we’re not really thinking “end of year” yet. Many school districts are off the entire week surrounding Turkey Day, and some just Thursday and Friday. But your boss might not be so generous, especially if your job is in retail.

The days leading up to Christmas are fun and exciting, while the days after are considerably less so. Figuring out what’s “fair,” especially when there is only one Christmas Day during the break, has caused many couples to revisit their custody agreement.

When coming up with custody guidelines, there will always be a need to accommodate the vagaries of life. What worked last year may not work this year for a variety of reasons. In the event a matter does not settle, a judge may have to make a ruling, typically using a standard parenting time schedule form that alternates holidays each year. But that may not work from a practical standpoint. Partners need to work together to come up a plan that is best for them and their kids.

The most acrimonious divorces end up with people actually counting the custody days and taking a scorched earth approach to shared custody, but you don’t want to appear to be an evil elf. There are practical ways to look at splitting up the holiday to be more equitable (ways that’ll put you on Santa’s “good” list.) A good parenting plan is one you never really look at, because you understand you need to work together and succeed.

The first and best time to address custody is at the time of divorce. Your parenting plan should have all holidays addressed. Look at what the reality of your life is going to be versus what attorneys consider a “standard plan” and spell out any modifications clearly. People can interpret custody plans liberally and creatively, so you need to tighten them down very specifically.

With that said, there are a few starting points to work from when devising your holiday custody plan. Here are some options to consider.

Option 1: All or Nothing
Some families trade the whole holiday break off every year, so one parent has the kids for the entirety of the break. For many parents, this allows the opportunities for extended trips or family visits. The downside is that on off years, you will miss seeing your kids at all over the holidays. An option is for one parent gets the kids at Thanksgiving and one during Winter Break, alternating each year.

Option 2: Half and Half
Another option is breaking the holiday in half, with one parent getting custody for the first half and the other parent the second. For Thanksgiving week, if all the families live nearby, one parent might do Thanksgiving on Thursday and the other on Friday since the kids are off school anyway.

In December, one parent might get the kids through Christmas Day and the other through New Year’s Day. This isn’t always popular, since it means one parent gets the kids for Christmas, traditionally a fun holiday to spend with kids, and the other parent has the kids for New Year’s Eve, traditionally a fun holiday to spend with adults. One solution is to carve out a block from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day, so the same parent gets both the high and the low.

Option 3: The Usual Routine
Some families just maintain their regular custody routine through the break, preferring to maintain a successful schedule instead of disrupting it. This can work well, although it can also lead to one parent having custody on the actual holiday for several years in a row.

Option 4: Creative Solutions
Finding a creative solution means finding a solution that works for you and your family. One parent could do Thanksgiving lunch and the other dinner. Or, one parent could stake a claim on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day, and they build their holiday custody agreement around maintaining this new holiday tradition.

One final note: There are more complaints about visitation before big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, because people may have made informal agreements in the past and then reneged on them. People expect reciprocity when they give a little extra time, but that’s hard to enforce. Judges aren’t going to move any faster just because you want to spend Thanksgiving with your kids.

There’s no one “right” approach to handling holiday custody, but it really helps if the parents can agree on a united front. Trying one approach and finding it doesn’t work isn’t a failure. It’s just a sign to keep trying other options. Eventually, working together, you will find an approach that works for your situation.

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