Planning Ahead Will reduce
Holiday Visitation Conflicts

By: Bradley Coates
Special to the
Oahu Island News

Christmas and New Year’s are finally over and now it may be time to start putting away holiday decorations, start your annual January diet and perhaps call your lawyer because your ex is giving you a hard time about the schedule for the kids’ holiday visitation period.

With half of all marriages ending in divorce, and with Hawaii having one of America’s highest rates of transience (people moving in and out of state) it’s no surprise that lots of divorced parents wind up geographically separated from their kids. Possibly mom and dad were both local folks who got divorced, and one later moved to Las Vegas for job opportunities. Perhaps dad was in the military, married a local girl while stationed here, and then got divorced at his next duty station, with mom coming home to Honolulu.

In “long distance” cases of this sort, the Family Court will generally order two lengthier periods of “extended visitation” per year. Depending on the kids’ school calendar, this will generally be a long period in the summer (up to eight weeks) and one other school holiday. The most common arrangement for the other school holiday is to alternate Christmas and Spring Break.

One would think that this would be a fairly simple undertaking, but it’s amazing to see how many things can go wrong. Thus, not surprisingly, the period just before these school vacations and just afterwards are often the busiest for family law attorneys. Before the visit, mom won’t send the kids, or dad is refusing to pay for the tickets, or maybe mom won’t let them fly alone and insists that dad escort them. Sometimes one parent tries to dictate to the other just what the kids can and cannot do while on the visit.

While most of the problems are parent-generated, kids can often promote their parents’ conflicts. At the beginning of the visit, some kids just refuse to go. For younger children, the fear of the trip and/or separation from the custodial parent is often the cause. Older children have different agendas. One teenage boy didn’t want to spend the summer with his dad because he wanted to hang out with his girlfriend, and besides, the prior summer, his dad was at work most of the time and used him as free labor to paint his house.

We also get those kids that don’t want to go back home once the visit is over. Typically the kids will say that they don’t want to leave – the non-custodial parent then interprets this as the green light not to send them home and to instead apply for a change of custody. Sometimes children tell stories of abuse at home, and it can be pretty tough for a parent to try to figure out whether there’s really something to it, or whether the kids are just being little manipulators. When one parent sees the kids only on vacations and does all the “fun things” with them, while the other parent is the “school parent” who makes them do their homework, go to bed on time, etc. it isn’t hard to figure out which parent the kids would rather be with.

There are some things that geographically separated parents can do to avoid conflict. First, the non-custodial parent should try to maintain appropriate communication with the kids throughout the year, not just at vacation time. Besides calls and cards, the Internet and web-cams provide a great opportunity for “face to face” visits.

If their court orders aren’t already specific enough, parents should agree in advance on when the visit period begins and ends. For example, “eight weeks during the summer vacation period” doesn’t tell you when it begins and ends. A better arrangement is to agree that junior will be on the plane to Honolulu within one week of the ending of the school term. The same precision can be applied to the ending date and return home time.

Connecting flights, escorts and airport pickups can also be fruitful ground for argument. The airlines already have rules about ages for children to travel unescorted, and they have procedures for making sure kids with connecting flights actually get on them and are
met at the end of the trip by a designated pickup person. Parents should talk about escorts and try to agree on a cutoff age, but if they can’t, a court will probably say that the airlines’ rules and procedures are good enough.

While we’ve got lots of good advice to help parents keep out of court, the sad reality is that some are inevitably going to wind up there. If “Peace on Earth” didn’t accurately describe your holiday, then a good family law attorney may be the best present you can give yourself.

Bradley A. Coates, J.D., has been a practicing divorce attorney in Honolulu for over 25 years. He has been selected as Honolulu’s best divorce lawyer and is the founder of Coates & Frey, Hawaii’s largest family law firm. Mr. Coates wrote an award-winning book, “Divorce with Decency: The Complete How-To Handbook and Survivor’s Guide to the Legal, Emotional, Economic, and Social Issues." This article contains only general information and readers should seek appropriate experts for each individual’s case and/or fact situation. Phone: 524-4854 or visit