Vacation Planning For Separated Or Divorced Families

By: Diane Wasznicky

Planning and arranging parenting schedules for separated/divorced parents and their children can often be a grueling task. Many parents, attorneys and mediators, who assist parents in reaching agreements and making recommendations, fail to think about vacation planning. As one can guess, vacations typically occur during the summer time and other "extended" school holidays. Unfortunately, the lack of specificity in a parenting schedule, and the consequential problems this causes, often becomes glaringly apparent to the parents at the eleventh hour, i.e., when the children are already out of school. Talking about and setting up parenting schedules is a confusing and often very frustrating task for divorced and separated parents and children, who, unfortunately, become caught in the middle. It is critical, then, that vacation planning is thoroughly analyzed and agreed upon in advance, and that clear, specific and practical language is used as much as possible in a parenting arrangement.

Creating and adhering to a parenting schedule that includes specific days and times is vital for the well-being of both parents and children. The reason for this is the need for enforceability where necessary, and the ever greater need to avoid any areas of possible confusion that can result in disputes and litigation.

When parents dispute and disagree on parenting schedules, many spend a significant portion of funds paying an attorney or mediator to help resolve the dispute, or, if necessary, try to get the Court to "fix" the problem on an emergency basis. One important way to avoid these situations is to be specific in the Order or Agreement as to when each parent will exercise his or her vacation time. One possible method is the "default" provision that would, as it relates to the summer vacation, be as follows:

"The parents shall each have two one-week periods with the children during the children's summer vacation from school. These weeks would not (or would) be consecutive. The parents shall exchange dates for their respective vacation weeks no later than May 1st each year. The vacation period shall supersede the regular parenting schedule but not break the continuity of that schedule."

"If the parents do not exchange dates and agree on a schedule by May 1st each year, the following schedule will be the order: Mother shall have the children for the second week in July and the second week in August. Father shall have the children for the third week in June and the third week in July."

A provision such as the one above serves two purposes. First, and most importantly, it sets forth a schedule that will be in place if the parties cannot work out a schedule on their own, allowing each parent to have some certainty that a vacation will occur, and with no need for Court involvement. Second, it gives parents an incentive to work together to agree on a schedule, if the default schedule will not work.

Similarly, parents should think about "extended" school holidays and how to allocate parenting between each other well in advance. Extended holidays can include winter/Christmas vacation, spring break, Thanksgiving week and extended time off for children attending year-round and semi-traditional schools.

Parents must adhere to parenting schedules and plan their lives accordingly. Except for unforeseen emergencies, parents should not try to deviate from an agreed-upon schedule. Often times, parents who have conflicted relationships with their separated/divorced spouse will assume, or hope, that it is acceptable to make plans (e.g., buy tickets, make non-refundable reservations, etc.) before getting the other parent's approval on a weekend that he or she knows is the other parent's parenting time because he or she has decided an adjustment or accommodation is needed (for a non-emergency situation). As one should suspect, the Courts appropriately frown upon such actions.

Parents who can work together cooperatively, with their children's best interests at heart, can attempt to live with less than specific schedules. Unfortunately this situation is not common for the majority of parents and involves effort from both parents, particularly where one or both parents have job positions that do not have concrete schedules, such as firefighters, police and the military. Even if two parents start off working well with one another, the situation may change as the child gets older and new spousal partners become involved. That is why, regardless of your relationship with your separated/divorced spouse, the Court encourages you to have a specific parenting schedule so that you can plan your activities, holidays and vacations years in advance and never, or with limitation, spend unnecessary time and money in Court. Creating and adhering to such arrangements will eliminate the possibility of having to spend money and time in disputes and litigation.

Top 5 List: Vacation-Planning Tips

1. Keep your children's best interest at heart.
2. Discuss and attempt to agree on specific dates and times for vacations well in advance.
3. Any agreed upon vacation schedule should be in writing, signed and dated by both parents and submitted to the court for approval in order to be enforceable.
4. If a true emergency arises that would interfere with the other parent's parenting time, amicably communicate this with the other parent in as far advance as possible.
5. Remember that, as your children grow, their needs may be such that the parenting schedule may need to be re-visited to meet those needs.

Diane Wasznicky is a Certified Family Law Specialist and Partner with the Sacramento-based family law firm of Bartholomew & Wasznicky LLP, 4740 Folsom Boulevard, Sacramento; 866-860-2447. You can also reach her at Diane@DivorceWithRespect.com.