Indiana’s Parenting Time “Nightmare Before Christmas”

It’s that time of year again. People run all over town to do their Christmas shopping, to decorate their homes, and attend holiday parties to spread cheer among their friends and themselves. However, this is also the worst time of year for lawyers, parents, and most importantly, children, because of what is known around our office as “Indiana’s Parenting Time ‘Nightmare before Christmas.’ ”

A number of years ago, some brilliant (and I say “brilliant” both literally and sarcastically) people put together what is known as Indiana’s “Parenting Time Guidelines” (guidelines that apply in all legal custody cases to assure that children have frequent and meaningful contact with each parent).  Although these are to be utilized as “guidelines,” they are far from it.  Many lawyers give copies of the guidelines to their clients without guidance on how to apply them, and the clients (or those who act as their own counsel and search the Internet), utilize the guidelines as the Bible of Parenting Time; no exceptions, no deviations, no thought or consideration to the consequences of how they affect who the Guidelines are suppose to protect: the children.

Although the parenting time guidelines provide guidance on many issues (most of which should be common sense), the one area that creates the most confusion for clients, and often times lawyers, is the portion that addresses Christmas Parenting Time for parents with their children.

Christmas Break is supposed to be a time when children are happy with the expectation of gifts, seeing family and friends, and most importantly to them, not going to school. However, the revolving door contained in the Christmas Break provisions of the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines create not only a nightmare for children, but a nightmare for parents and attorneys alike.

My practice is primarily based out of Porter County, Indiana. Porter County has six school districts, most of them on the same Christmas vacation schedule.  However, due to the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines and how they cause children to be bounced around during their two-week Christmas break, the nightmare occurs for parents and attorneys who must get out calendars, calculators, slide rules, iPads and many other devices in order to simply figure out how the children are going to be shuffled about during their Christmas vacation.

The confusing (and oftentimes, disastrous) pertinent parts of the IPTG provide:

D. HOLIDAY PARENTING TIME SCHEDULE
2 B. Christmas Vacation.
One-half of the period which will begin at 8:00 P.M. on the evening the child is released from school and continues to December 30 at 7:00 P.M. If the parents cannot agree on the division of this period, the custodial parent shall have the first half in even-numbered years. In those years when Christmas does not fall in a parent’s week, that parent shall have the child from Noon to 9:00 P.M. on Christmas Day. The winter vacation period shall apply to pre-school children and shall be determined by the vacation period of the public grade school in the custodial parent’s school district.

2 C. Holidays.
In years ending with an even number, the non-custodial parent shall exercise the following parenting time:
[1] New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. (The date of the new year will determine odd or even year).
From December 30th at 7:00 P.M to 7:00 P.M. of the evening before school resumes.

Huh?????

Based upon Indiana’s Parenting Time Guidelines and the main school districts of Porter County’s vacation time, as well as the majority of the other school districts in the State of Indiana, the once-deciphered guideline schedule for division of children causes the following “bouncing” to occur:

(Last day of school: December 21, 2012 – School Resumes: January 7, 2013)

Custodial Parent:
(a) Friday, December 21 from 8:00 PM until Tuesday, December 25 (Christmas Day) at 12:00 Noon, and
(b) Tuesday, December 25 at 9:00 PM until Wednesday, December 26 at 3:00 PM, and
(c) Sunday, December 30 from 7:00 PM until Sunday, January 6 at 7:00 PM.

Non-Custodial Parent:
(a) Tuesday, December 25 (Christmas Day)  from 12:00 Noon until Tuesday, December 25 (Christmas Day) at 9:00 PM, and,
(b) Wednesday, December 26 at 3:00 PM until Sunday, December 30 at 7:00 PM.

*** THIS ALSO APPLIES TO PRE-SCHOOL CHILDREN AND IS GOVERNED BY THE SCHOOL DISTRICT IN WHICH THEY RESIDE***

Pack your bags, kids… and leave them packed until New Year’s Eve because you and your suitcases will be travelling between Mom’s house and Dad’s house more in the next few weeks than a steamer trunk traveled the Atlantic Ocean.

Now, don’t be fooled by the phrase in the Guideline “One-half of the period… .”  This year (odd or even… this break counts as an “odd”) provides for the custodial parent to have the time from December 30 until the night before school begins, so in actuality, the custodial parent has the children 13 days compared to the non-custodial parent’s 6 days; one of which is 9 hours on Christmas Day.

Five back-and forths in a short period of time?  That makes a lot of sense.  Yet parents don’t care. If I had the proverbial nickel for every time in my nearly 30 years of practicing Family Law that I heard, “It’s MY time, I want it!” I’d be sipping scotch on the rocks on the beach outside my house in St. Maarten.  But I don’t have those nickels, I don’t have a house in the Carribean, and already, the phone calls have started asking “When do I get my kids for Christmas?”

Thank God the scotch is readily available this time of year, even if the nickels and beach house aren’t.

Wait a minute… isn’t the “Holiday Season” and the associated break from school suppose to be for the children?  Isn’t that a time when they are suppose to be happy and having fun?  Santa, snow-persons (politically correct, I believe), movies, junk food and sleeping in?

Nope!  This is another excuse for misguided parents to jab at one another, cause needless and unwanted turmoil, and drive their lawyers crazy with fights over “She’s getting 12 more minutes than I am” or “My family always celebrates on Christmas Eve and he won’t let me have them.”  On and on it goes… where these parents will stop, nobody knows.

Indiana has a draft of “revised” Parenting Time Guidelines that is floating around in limbo.  They’ve been circulated for nearly nine months, but for some reason, can’t be/haven’t been adopted.  Why? Because the professionals who know what’s best for children can’t agree on what’s best for Indiana’s children.  Sound familiar?

If they are ever adopted, the Christmas Vacation merry-go-round may finally come to an end. The mystery draft has the following solution to ending the constant back and forth:

B. Christmas Vacation.
The Christmas  vacation shall be defined as beginning on the last day of school and ending the last day before school begins again.    Absent agreement of the parties, the first half of the period will begin two hours after the child is released from school.  The second half of the period will end at 6:00 p.m. on the day before school begins again.
Each party will receive one half (1/2) of the total days of the Christmas vacation, on an alternating basis as follows:
1.In even numbered years, the custodial parent shall have the first one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation and non-custodial parent shall have the second one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation.
2.In odd numbered years, the non-custodial parent shall have the first one half (1/2) of the Christmas  vacation and custodial parent shall have the second one half (1/2) of the Christmas  vacation.
3. In those years when Christmas does not fall in a parent’s week, that parent shall have the child(ren) from Noon to 9:00 P.M. on Christmas Day.
4. No exchanges under this portion of the rule shall occur between 9:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., absent agreement of the parties.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day shall not be considered separate holidays under the Parenting Time Guidelines.

A little more simple? Absolutely. Less suitcase mileage?  Finally! Will parents still find ways to fight about the breakdown of time and count their minutes to make sure the other parent doesn’t get a few seconds more?  Most likely.  Will lawyers still have to deal with parents arguing over the amount of time they demand over the Christmas holiday, even though most of the parents will still have to go to their own daily job and not be able to actually spend any extra time with their children after all (oh no… here comes the “First Right of Refusal” fights!)? Sadly, yes.

As Family Law attorneys, it is our job to help guide our clients through rocky times.  However, we can’t properly guide them if we don’t explain the road map we give them; simply handing them a copy of Parenting Time Guidelines and saying “Read the book… Good Luck!” is not enough.  On the other hand, if the road map we give them is so confusing and leads to more hazards than assistance, it’s the responsibility of the drafters of the revised guidelines to get them finished, get them approved, and make them simple enough for everyone to understand and apply.

The solution to Indiana’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” can be solved with a few simple steps that end with the same conclusion:

1. The new Parenting Time Guidelines that appear to address a more reasonable division of the Christmas Break need to be approved NOW; keeping in mind, not what’s best for the parents, but what’s best for the children,

2.  Parents need to AGREE on how to divide the time their children have off from school for the holidays, long before December 20 each year; keeping in mind, not what’s best for the parents, but what’s best for the children,

3.  Family Law attorneys need to better explain the Guidelines to their clients and not just hand them a copy, wish them well, and send them on their way; keeping in mind, not what’s best for the parents, but what’s best for the children, and

4.  Drafters, attorneys and parents MUST realize that the Christmas Holiday Break, as well as all other parenting time, is a time for the children.  Petty differences over minutes and overnights should be put aside… THAT is what is best for the children.

The drafters of the new guidelines need to act quickly in making their final revisions.  Lawyers need to provide input as to what we see in the field as reality, not what “studies show” or “other states have done… .”  The Indiana Supreme Court needs to promulgate the new guidelines as soon as possible so holiday issues have more clarity and resolution in 2013.  But most importantly, everyone involved in the Family Law field has to realize that quality parenting time does not equate to hours, minutes and overnights with a child.  Quality parenting time is what is done during the time a parent and child are together.  As soon as attorneys, at the commencement of a case, start advising their clients to look at the parent’s time with their children as a precious commodity, instead of “time of possession,” everyone will be better served, especially the most important people of all… the children.

Mark Warren Coleman

Mark Warren Coleman

Attorney, Mediator, Arbitrator, Guardian Ad Litem and Parenting Time Coordinator at Law Offices of Mark Warren Coleman and Associates
For nearly 35 years, Mark Warren Coleman, J.D. has been practicing law in northwest Indiana (USA) and his practice has concentrated solely in all areas of Family Law with emphasis in divorce, child custody and parenting time, post-dissolution matters, mediation and arbitration, Guardian Ad Litem services and Parenting Time Coordinator services . Attorney Coleman is admitted to practice law before the Indiana Supreme Court, the Northern Federal District of Indiana, the Southern Federal District of Indiana, the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh District, and the Northern Federal District of Illinois. Attorney Coleman is a Registered Family Law Mediator, having been trained by the ICLEF/Indiana Supreme Court Mediation Training Program. He is a Member of the Indiana State Bar Association, a Member of the Indiana State Bar Association, Family Law Section, a Member of the Porter County, Indiana Bar Association and a Member of the Porter County, Indiana Bar Association, Family Law Section. Attorney Coleman is also a Life Fellow of the Indiana Bar Foundation.
Mark Warren Coleman

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Mark Warren Coleman

For nearly 35 years, Mark Warren Coleman, J.D. has been practicing law in northwest Indiana (USA) and his practice has concentrated solely in all areas of Family Law with emphasis in divorce, child custody and parenting time, post-dissolution matters, mediation and arbitration, Guardian Ad Litem services and Parenting Time Coordinator services . Attorney Coleman is admitted to practice law before the Indiana Supreme Court, the Northern Federal District of Indiana, the Southern Federal District of Indiana, the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh District, and the Northern Federal District of Illinois. Attorney Coleman is a Registered Family Law Mediator, having been trained by the ICLEF/Indiana Supreme Court Mediation Training Program. He is a Member of the Indiana State Bar Association, a Member of the Indiana State Bar Association, Family Law Section, a Member of the Porter County, Indiana Bar Association and a Member of the Porter County, Indiana Bar Association, Family Law Section. Attorney Coleman is also a Life Fellow of the Indiana Bar Foundation.