Holidays and Family Law

With Father’s Day fast approaching, it feels appropriate to discuss one of the more contentious
issues amongst co-parent’s… Holidays.
My sweet grandmother, Molly McNabney, passed away last year at the age of 94. When I
reminisce on her memory, the first thing that comes to mind are Christmas, Thanksgiving, and
other special events we attended at her home on Balsam Avenue in Toronto. Molly was Scottish,
and despite being in Canada most of her life, she retained her cheerful and distinct accent. She
was a fabulous story teller and she could throw a good party. In short, she helped make my
childhood holidays fun, fantastic and eventful.
Now that I have a family of my own, the holiday lustre has worn off some. There’s planning,
packing, expenses and often juggling multiple family events. In some families, this can require
some Sidney Crosby level stick-handling as we weave around separated parents, separated
grandparents, family feuds and the like. I won’t get into the details, but I have a distinct memory
of a family event as a teenager, soon-to-be-adult, when a fistfight erupted in the driveway! At the
time, I had no idea that conflict between person A and person B had been brewing for years that
culminated in that crazy eruption of family insanity!
If your present domestic situation is now or on course to become yet another stick in the spoke of
stress free holiday planning, here is the quick and dirty Family Law landscape you can expect
when dealing with your former spouse.
Family Judges apply a broad range of legislative rules and principles drawn from decided cases
in determining what arrangements are in a child’s best interests. Every case has different facts,
which influence which laws and principles ought to apply and in what measure, so we won’t get
too technical here.
What I can say is that whatever the wider parenting arrangements are in place, Courts are
generally in favor of an equal division of holidays between parents. The scope of holidays
covered, and the specific expectations vary widely. It is more or less a given that Christmas,
Easter, Thanksgiving and March Break will or should be explicitly referenced in any Parenting
Agreement or Court Order. Whether the parents or Court decide to address the “lesser” holidays
is more varied, such as Canada Day or Labor Day.
“Equal” can mean the parents split the holiday down the middle: say with Dad having the first
half of the weekend and Mom the second half. Or rotate on a yearly basis, with Dad having oddnumbered years, and Mom having even-numbered years.
Mother’s Day, you guessed, would go to Mom, and subsequently Father’s Day to Dad. In family
situations where one parent identifies as another gender, you may choose to share these holidays
differently, but still equally.
Some clients continue to spend holidays together (that might become awkward once a new
partner is involved). Some clients continue to facilitate their children getting the other parent
gifts on holidays. Small acts such as this, can help to facilitate a better co-parenting relationship,
can help reinforce principles of appreciation and respect to your children, and also demonstrates
that you are encouraging your child’s relationship with the other parent.
There are some cases where a client knows that a particular holiday is extremely important to the
other spouse. As a function of sound negotiation, it can sometimes be to your benefit to offer that
holiday to the other parent, if they are prepared to offer you some consideration in return.
There are also breaks in the school year to consider. In circumstances, for instance, where one
parent has the children with them during the school week, the “weekend parent” is often afforded
additional time, either in the form of two week-long blocks of summer holiday time, or in some
cases the equal sharing of time in the summer.
Your reasonable expectation post-separation is that you and your former spouse will be sharing
holidays 50/50. Yes, even if you want and/or have “Primary Care.” In any family law case, it is
generally advisable to align your expectations with what outcome you can expect if the Family
Court were to become involved. Any outcome inconsistent with reasonable expectations will
either be the product of negotiation or because of unique circumstances of your case (for
example, substance abuse issues with one parent). You should not impose your perspective of
what is “right” for a given holiday in the absence of a Parenting Agreement, or a Court Order.
Our Family Court Judges tend not to appreciate parents who exercise self-help, rather than
following established and lawful rules and processes available to us to settle these types of
Communicate with the other parent and try to plan these things as far in advance as possible.
Also, communicate what other family members can expect from you and your children in
advance, and stress to other family members that negative talk about the other parent, especially
around the kids, is not ok.
What’s truly most important is to keep a child-focused perspective when engaging in these
negotiations with your former spouse. Would you, as a 6-year-old (or any age), really want to be
driving 2.5 hours in the middle of Christmas Day, every year? Or, might it make more sense for
one year to be at Mom’s for Christmas Day, and Dad’s for Boxing Day, and to switch things up
the following year?
Bottom line: when both parents are able to put their kids interests first – the holidays can be far
more Balsam Avenue Christmas, and far less driveway fistfight. Help keep the holidays fun for
your kids and think equality with the other parent. Orienting yourself in this way towards a
former partner is good for your kids, and puts you in a better position should your matter ever
come before a Family Court Judge.
Yours Truly,
Blake S. Jeffries B.A., (Hons) L.L.B.

  • Blake runs a general law practice in the City of Kawartha Lakes. His practice is
    designed to help people in our community in those areas where they are most likely going
    to be interacting with a lawyer: Family, Criminal, Real Estate, and Estates. This post is
    not to be considered legal advice but is rather general information. Any views expressed
    are those of the author. For any questions or comments please contact the writer.