When this writer first began to practice matrimonial law in 1982, the period after November 1 of each year could be termed the “Quiet Time.” In those days, once Halloween had occurred people decided no matter how bad their situation, they would tough out the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas or Chanukah. They did so in order to minimize the disruption on their children, who justifiably saw the holidays as one of joy and family unity.

It is different today. In recent years we have been asked to do initial consultations even during the third and fourth weeks of December. This seems very odd but I have concluded that the arrival of year’s end and the holidays prompts people to take stock over the state of their marriages and to ask the difficult question: “Is this working?” And if that question prompts a negative reply it leads to the more difficult inquiry: “What next?”

Truth of the matter is that these are and should be very troubling questions. In 1980, when Pennsylvania became a “no fault” jurisdiction, the fear was that no fault would cause an explosion in the number of divorces and irrevocable damage to the institution of marriage. Thirty-five years of statistical data have shown that the explosion in divorce never occurred. Ironically, if there is an objective measure of how marriage was affected, it is shown in the number of people who decide to marry. The numbers tell us that divorce is down. But marriage is way down.

Meanwhile, the interviews we provide to people in November and December of each year tell us something more interesting. Most people we meet are clear that they don’t want to file for divorce or even start the process before 2017 arrives, but they are clearly troubled by where marriage has brought them and they want to know what divorce would mean for them and for their children.

They ask excellent questions. Many of these questions are economic. Those are easy because our lawyers have lots of experience with this kind of thing. But then we have lots of inquiries about their children and how they will be affected. Unlike money, children are tough to measure, especially from a distance. Obviously divorce is much more prevalent than it once was. So kids understand divorce in one sense because many of their classmates have had firsthand experience. But observing the divorce of your best friend in school is quite different than the firsthand experience of seeing your own parents dissolve the only marriage you have ever known close up.

From a distance we can say that children respond differently. Some kids seem completely unaffected by the breakup of a marriage. Others are profoundly affected. Age has little to do with it. We have witnessed eight year olds who tolerate their parents’ divorce as if it were a minor event while their seventeen-year-old brother is devastated.

In an odd twist we are also often asked by prospective clients whether they should divorce. Obviously, there is no objective test providing a definitive answer. What we do experience a fair measure of is an effort to evaluate whether personal happiness should be foregone “for the sake of the children.” In other words, should I just accept a miserable marriage for the next 10, 12, 16 years to spare the children the anguish of divorce.

This is a place where lawyers need to tread lightly just as physicians do in the world of pain management. Some of us pass out at the sign of blood. Others have survived being awake and alert during the amputation of a limb. Some people expect very little from marriage and don’t deeply experience the pain associated with a bad one. Their neighbors can become depressed to the point of self-harm by the same stimuli. So be wary of any attorney who has strong opinions either for or against your marital situation. They are not the patient in distress. You are.

Meanwhile, here are the questions you need to ponder when you feel the strong need to move on.

  1. How will each of my children be affected? If you ask a child whether he or she would want to see you separate, chances are that they will say they are against it. But then ask yourself, how much anxiety does this child experience living in a household where two parents no longer like each other. Many parents pretend that their children don’t know about the level of parental discord. Perhaps true but experience has taught me that it is the full time job of children to observe, evaluate and manipulate their parents during the 18 hours per day they are not in school. Don’t underestimate them.
  2. How will you be affected by sentencing yourself to another five, ten or fifteen years of unhappiness? For most of us, the damage of living in an unhappy marital situation is cumulative, just like smoking.
  3. Not that you care, but what is the effect on your spouse of living the “lie” for the same period you are. Perhaps you have a higher pain threshold. But when people are forced to live together while not liking each other, the effect is often more frequent and more serious “bad behavior.” Your children will witness all of this while you both tolerate it.
  4. What is the lesson the children get from a state of lasting armistice? Are you and your spouse each depriving yourselves and your children from experiencing marriage as a happy relationship? Many clients profess that they will never marry again so that the question is moot. Meanwhile our experience shows that most will move on to other relationships which provide differing degrees of satisfaction. But a question you have to grapple with is whether you would want your children to have a marital relationship similar to yours. Obviously, there is a faith element to this question. If you view marriage as a contract having divine qualities, the question may not require an answer at all. A higher being has determined that you will and should remain together and that this is required.

It is clear that the arrival of years’ end does prompt many people to evaluate the state of their marriage and its future prospects. Attorneys can provide useful answers to the worldly questions of how property division, custody and support issues work. But imbedded in these questions are far greater ones; questions for which lawyers cannot and should not pretend to have easy answers.

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Copyright: 123RF Stock Photo

Discussing “how to survive the holidays” during the holidays is a pretty standard article for people to write. For many clients, such articles allow for self-reflection on how they approach the holidays and their interaction with their ex-spouse; or it helps build some confidence that they will manage the uncomfortable situations which arise around extended family. The problem is, if you are a client looking for advice on how to deal with holiday-related legal issues during the holidays, it is already too late to do anything. Due to scheduling constraints, attorney or client availability, negotiations and conferences, dealing with, for example, a Christmas issue should really begin in September or October.

Consequently, now that the winter holidays are nearly behind us, the next major source of friction for many people is how they are going to handle their kids’ summer vacations and educational decisions. Which camp? How many camps? When will you take vacation? Where is the vacation and who will be there? Who will be covering the kids? Who gets priority on choosing vacation weeks? Should there be a change in schools or extracurricular activities?

Addressing any or all of these questions cannot first occur in May. The earlier they can be addressed the greater the probability they will be worked out between the parties or, failing that, allow for enough time to take the issue to Court and have a decision rendered. Do not wait too long – the court will not consider a summer issue an “emergency” and allow for an expedited hearing simply because there is little time between when the disagreement occurred and when a decision must be made. You may find that petition slotted into the non-emergency hearing list and the ultimate decision affecting your 2016 summer instead of 2015.

Many family law attorneys notice a bump in their cases right after the holidays. People often wait to address issues until they have made it through this time of year and have the time and space away from friends and family to deal with a deeply personal issue such as divorce, or address a potentially contentious custodial issue. Having survived the holidays, or perhaps as a result of what happened over the holidays, they need to discuss their options or pursue an action. It is also a good time to take stock of what may come up in the near future.

This time of year is ideal for looking at the next six months in order to alleviate some of the stress and concern they may have about summer vacations or child care coverage when the kids are out of school. If you think that there may be a legal or logistical issue over the summer or following school year, it is worth the call to your attorney to review your custody order or the applicable agreement and see whether you need to address your concern sooner rather than later. You may save yourself significant amounts of money, aggravation, and disappointment.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter@AaronWeemsAtty.

Despite that it is only early October, the holidays will be here before you know it.  Retailers are ready, with aisles full of Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations.  If you share custody of your children, you should be ready too.  Here are a few tips:

1.            KNOW WHAT YOUR CUSTODY ORDER SAYS:  Even if you think you remember who gets Christmas this year or what time you exchange the children on Thanksgiving, take your Order out of your desk and read it again, sooner rather than later.  It is much easier to discover now that it isn’t your year to have the kids on Christmas Eve than on December 23.

2.            MAKE YOUR TRAVEL PLANS NOW:  Custody Orders often have specific times that children need to be back to the other parent.  You will have much more luck booking airline tickets that fit into those restrictions if you book now than if you wait until the last minute.  And if you cannot make arrangements that work within the constraints of your Order, you will likely get a lot more understanding from the other parent if you ask now for some flexibility as opposed to the day before you travel.

3.            COMMUNICATE WITH THE OTHER PARENT:  While this may sound less appealing than traveling on Thanksgiving, it is important to make sure that you and the other parent are on the same page and have the same understanding about the holiday schedule and holiday travel plans.  It can be as simple as sending a calm, straightforward email setting forth your understanding.  Or, if communication comes more easily, you can pick up the phone and call. 

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Summer has past and it feels like we are already well entrenched with fall. For some couples with custody agreements, issues about summer vacation and the summer-time holidays have been addressed. As the year progresses, however, religious holidays become the main source of contention between people. If they have not already addressed how they will divide these holidays, it can make a normally stressful time even worse as the schedules of who has the children when and whether extended families will get to see the kids, etc.

Mark Banschick, M.D. uses the celebration of Rosh Hashanah this week as a jumping off point in an article on some practical tips for dealing with the holidays.

In reality, the best way to address holidays is to have a specific schedule in place and in a Custody Order. When it comes to negotiating a schedule, however, it is important to identify what is really important to you and, particularly for religious holidays, what aspect of that holidays has meaning to you in terms of family traditions or religious upbringing for your children. If Midnight Mass is more important to you than having the kids open gifts at 5 am, then simply ask for Christmas Eve and open gifts with the kids in the afternoon on Christmas or, for that matter on Christmas Eve. Rare is the child who will object to stretching out Christmas an extra day on the front or back end.

Do not lose sight of the fact that the point of holidays is to share special time with your family. As the children grow up, it will be moments over holidays that make for long-last memories. By prioritizing what is important to you and your family, you are most likely to provide your children with positive memories from each household.

It’s the end of July; the perfect time to be discussing with your former or about to be former spouse the plans for the child(ren) for the balance of the summer, right?  Well, why not?  If the summer schedule has been discussed in the first three months of the year what fun would that be?  And that would have meant more rational discussions and advance planning and other things that would give stability to the lives of the children.  What fun is that?

Candidly, lawyers hate custody at least twice a year.  The first and worst is anything having to do with Christmas.  Christmas can be discussed rationally for 10 months of the year.  But after November 1st, it becomes a holiday whose single purpose is to torture lawyers as much as it tortures parents.  As most folks realize, Christmas is usually split with Thanksgiving.  One parent gets the turkey; the other gets Santa and all the trimmings.  The longer one waits to get the harmony of this split established the more embedded “family plans” become.  And “family plans” never work well with an easy division of the holidays.  It is now late July.  If the plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas are not already set in stone, call your lawyer immediately.  Or, wait a few months so that the intensity of the battle can reach epic proportions together with the bill for the negotiations.

 

The second time to hate custody is any time after July 4.  This is when the non-plans or the plans articulated in a phone message but never written down become an emergency.  Of course your ex knew that you always take the third week of July for your annual, but not ever attended, family reunion.  And of course your no good former spouse just booked a trip to Disney on the week you meant to schedule a trip with the kids to Bar Harbor.

 

Every year, countless emotions and dollars are bled on the altar of uncommunicated custody plans.  All of it is completely unnecessary and only masochistic lawyers enjoy this process.

 

Save yourself some money and you and your lawyer some angst by committing to the concept that each parent will have summer plans in place not later than April 1st.  In odd numbered years, you set the schedule by that date; in even numbered years, the other parent gets the preference. This format allows everyone a reasonable shot at registering for the “good” camps and not just those that have a space or two.  It allows reasonable, if not optimum, seashore rentals.

 

A couple of other tips: a week’s vacation is five days tacked on to your usual custodial weekend and not seven days that only overlaps the other parent’s weekend and not your weekend.  If you want a shore rental which typically runs Saturday to Saturday, put that on the table early or understand that the start and or end of your vacation will be at home.  If it is likely that your co-parent will also do a week at the shore, how nice to avoid the additional 4-6 hours of travel for the kids by arranging a common drop off point in South Jersey. Finally, most sure that custody orders clearly indicate that holidays “trump” the ordinary schedule, but that vacations do not trump holidays.  So, if Father has July 4th, it is neither equitable nor appropriate for Mother to take her vacation the first week of July.

 

We also see parents unduly stress their kids by engaging in competitive vacationing.  So father takes them for a week to Disney.  Mother will “see” that vacation and raise the stakes by taking them immediately to a ranch in Montana.  Imagine being the kid.  Two great vacations, but when placed back to back, the child ends up exhausted.

 

Last, but not least, does vacation mean “summer?” That used to be the standard, but today more and more parents are opting to take vacation either during the school year or over winter or spring break.  Schools seem to be more than willing to accept the disappearance of children during the academic year once assured that class assignments will be completed notwithstanding the absence of the children.  Whether this is appropriate ends up being an unproductive and often expensive debate.  Better to have it before one parent announces a plan to haul the kids away in January to “experience” the culture of Puerto Rico or Mexico as lived in a $300 a night resort.