Access during the Holidays: Who Gets the Kids?

Child Access following divorce

Deciding where the children will live following a separation or divorce can be one of the most contentious issues in family law cases. Determining where the children will spend holidays, vacations, and other special occasions can be particularly troubling.

Many court orders and separation agreements include a generic, unspecified term, such as: “The holidays to be divided between the parties equally, in accordance with the best interests of the child.” This can work where there is little conflict and good communication between the parents. It gives them flexibility to create a holiday access schedule that suits their needs. It also allows them to change the schedule from year to year, without having to create a new agreement or get a new court order.

However, if the parents do not communicate well, then including an unspecified holiday access provision assures a return to court (at worst) or lawyer-assisted negotiations (at best). It escalates the conflict between the parents. The parties are often in a time crunch to sort out access leading up to a major holiday or vacation. Added cost, time, and stress are guaranteed.

Therefore, lawyers and other family law professionals must be aware of the importance of drafting effective provisions relating to holiday access into their separation agreements and court orders. In order to do so, we must look at what the courts tend to order with regard to holiday access.

The test for determining access is: what access schedule is in the best interests of the child? (Divorce Act, RSC 1985, c. 3 (2nd Supp), s. 16(8).) Courts have found that having access to both parents during the holidays is generally in the best interests of the child. A review of the case law indicates that the following factors will influence a court’s determination of how much of a particular holiday will be spent with each parent:

  • The established pattern of traditions;
  • The age of the child;
  • The religious observances of each parent; and
  • The geographical distance between the parents.

The courts have found that it is in the best interests of the child to keep the “status quo” as much as possible when it comes to holiday traditions. Where a parent can show that they have an established holiday tradition, the Courts are likely to craft an access schedule that maintains that tradition (see, e.g., Arnott v. Arnott, 2012 ONSC 1822).

The age of the child relates to the established pattern of traditions as well. The older the child, the more established the traditions of the family.

Where the parents have different religious beliefs, the courts have found it is important for the child to be exposed to both sets of beliefs (see, e.g., S. (L.L.) v. G.(E.), 2002 ABPC 88). Where the parents share the same or similar religious beliefs, the courts have found it is in the best interests of the child to have access to both parents during the holidays (see, e.g., Arnott, supra, and Rosenberg v. Minster, 2011 ONSC 4758).

In Torbey v. Torbey, the court preferred the father’s proposal for Christmas holiday access, due to the 500km distance between the parents. This made the mother’s proposal of splitting the Christmas holiday impractical (2002 ABQB 192).

This post is based on the paper entitled “Who Gets the Kids?: A Review of the Case Law Regarding Access During the Holidays” by Eva I. DiGiammarino.” 

    If you have conflict in your family with respect to access issues you may wish to hire a professional to help resolve those issues.  Children whose parents are conflict-free are happier overall and will have better long term outcomes.