How To Navigate School Breaks, Summer Camps, Vacations, and Co-Parenting

Catherine Spanu, Burns & Levinson

When summer and school vacations approach, many divorcing spouses wonder: what happens with the children and the parenting plan? Do I get to take them for vacation, and sign them up for camps? What happens if my coparent refuses to let me take the children to my family reunion that only happens once every ten years?

Summers and school vacations can be stressful due to the changes in routine alone. That stress can be exacerbated by issues communicating with your coparent, or by uncertainty about vacation parenting plans and travel arrangements.

There are no hard and fast rules on these issues under Massachusetts law. However, to minimize stress and disruption for you and, most importantly, for your children, it is useful to know what is typical for coparenting and parenting plans during school and summer vacations, as well as how to address issues that may arise around vacations and coparenting.

A preliminary issue to consider is what is typically ordered by a judge, or agreed to between divorcing parents, as far as summer and school vacation parenting plans:

  • February/April Vacations: Massachusetts public schools typically have two week-long vacations, one in February and one in April. These vacations are often alternated, such that in a given year, Parent A has parenting time during February vacation, and Parent B has April vacation, with the schedule reversed the following year, for Parent B to have February vacation and Parent A the April vacation.Often, if parents alternate weekend parenting time, the vacation is a seven-day stretch, so that each parent’s weekends with the children are undisturbed. Alternatively, the vacation may run from the end of school on the Friday before vacation through the Monday morning when school reopens. However, many disfavor this because if parents usually alternate weekends, one parent has three weekends in a row.Sometimes, if a parent typically took the children for a particular activity such as skiing in February, or to a particular location before the divorce, that parent will have February (or April) vacation every year.
  • March Vacation: Many private schools in Massachusetts have a one- or two-week March vacation instead of February and April vacations. For a two-week vacation, some parents split the vacation period equally, while others alternate the vacation. For a one-week vacation, it is typical to alternate.
  • Thanksgiving/Winter Vacations: Thanksgiving and Winter (i.e., Christmas) vacations can be murkier. These vacations may be split or alternated, depending on family preferences.Although alternating (Parent A gets Thanksgiving Vacation and Parent B gets Winter Vacation in one year; then they swap the next year) is typical, this can depend on whether one or both parents celebrate Christmas.Some parents choose to split Thanksgiving so that one parent can have a Thanksgiving lunch with the children and the other can have a Thanksgiving dinner. Some families have a joint family celebration with both parents and the children. Some families split the entire Winter Vacation equally but alternate who gets the first and second halves. If both parents celebrate Christmas, they sometimes choose to share parenting time on Christmas Eve/Day so that Parent A has Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning, and Parent B picks the children up at noon and has the rest of Christmas Day, with the schedule reversing the following year.
  • Summer Vacations: There are many different approaches to summer vacation, but typically each parent has at least two weeks of vacation parenting time each summer.
  • Number of Weeks: If one parent has supervised parenting time or is unable to care for the children alone for an entire week, their summer vacation period might be shorter than the typical two consecutive or non-consecutive weeks. If one or both parents have family members (especially grandparents) overseas, each parent might be entitled to three or four weeks of summer vacation parenting time, particularly if there was an annual, lengthy summer trip to visit extended family before the parents separated.
  • Choice of Weeks: Typically, one parent has “first choice” of weeks in odd-numbered years and the other in even-numbed years. There is usually a timeframe for exercising first choice, such as by May 1st or June 1st each year. If the parent who has first choice does not notify the other of his or her chosen weeks by the required date, the other parent can then select vacation weeks.
  • Consecutive or Non-Consecutive Weeks: Often, each parent can elect to have summer parenting time in consecutive or non-consecutive weeks. That way, they can choose whether to break up their time into two separate vacations (or more), or have a single, longer vacation. However, for children who are elementary school age or younger, two weeks can be a very long time to go without seeing the other parent, so it is typical for each parent to be entitled to take only non-consecutive vacation weeks. This could be revisited and modified in the future once the children are older.
  • Interplay with Summer Holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day):There are three significant summer holidays (excluding Father’s Day): Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.For Memorial Day and Labor Day, which always fall on a Monday, it is fairly typical for these holidays to alternate (often with Parent A getting Memorial Day and Parent B getting Labor Day in one year, and reverse the following year), or for the holiday to be added to the parenting time of the parent who has the weekend just prior to the holiday. Given that the dates change from year to year, some parents like to map out parenting schedules to ensure that they will have equal holiday parenting time and that one parent doesn’t get the majority of holiday Mondays.

    Independence Day is often alternated, although some parents agree for one parent to have parenting time on Independence Day every year. For example, perhaps they continue attending an annual family barbeque that was a tradition before the parents separated. Since Independence Day can fall on any day of the week, some parents will agree that only the parent who has Independence Day in a particular year can elect to exercise a vacation week or weeks including Independence Day.

  • Long Distance: If the parents live a significant distance apart, the children may spend a significant portion of summer vacation with the parent with whom they do not live during the school year.
  • Week-On, Week-Off: A typical variation for summer vacation where parents have equal parenting time is week-on, week-off, where the children are with Parent A one week and with Parent B the next, and alternate weeks throughout the summer. In this situation, it’s typical for each parent to schedule vacations during his or her weeks, as well as camps.
  • Camps: The costs of camps, which can be significant, are not covered by child support. If child support is paid, camp expenses are often shared equally. Typically, if parents have shared legal custody, decisions regarding camps are made jointly and neither parent can unilaterally enroll the children in camps.However, with the week-on, week-off summer schedule discussed above, each parent typically schedules and pays for camps during their parenting weeks. One final note is that camp signups are typically very early, sometimes in January or earlier, so it’s crucial to look into options and enroll early, particularly if you need your coparent’s agreement prior to enrolling.
  • Travel: Divorced or divorcing parents are usually allowed to travel with the children during vacations, but are required to notify the other parent of travel arrangements including contact information for the children while traveling. For international or airplane travel, a notarized letter of consent from the non-traveling parenting permitting the traveling parent to travel with the children will be required in order to cross the border or board the airplane.

If you’re not divorced yet and would like to spend vacation time and/or travel with the children, you should speak with your coparent and try to come to an agreement so that both of you can spend meaningful time with the children during the summer. If you and your coparent cannot agree, you may need to involve experienced counsel, and possibly file a motion for temporary orders seeking vacation parenting time and/or permission to travel with the children.

If you’re already divorced or if there is a temporary order in place addressing the issues of vacation parenting time and travel, you should read the divorce judgment (and any separation agreement incorporated into it) or temporary order very carefully.

  • Does your agreement require you to notify your coparent of travel with the children? What specific information are you required to provide (e.g., dates, itinerary, flight numbers, hotel information including addresses and telephone numbers, contact information where the children can be reached, etc.)? Is there a timeframe within which you’re required to provide this information (e.g., 30 or 60 days prior to travel, as soon as travel arrangements are confirmed, etc.)?
  • What type of travel requires notification to your coparent (e.g., international travel, travel of three days in length or greater, travel outside New England, travel outside Massachusetts, etc.)?
  • How far in advance are you required to exercise your “first choice” of vacation weeks (e.g., April 1st, May 1st, June 1st)?
  • How far in advance are you required to request travel permissions from your coparent (e.g., 30 days prior to travel, 2 weeks prior to travel)?
  • Are there specific provisions regarding the children’s passports? Are they required to be kept by one parent until requested by the traveling parent, and then kept by him or her until the other parent needs them to travel? How far in advance are you required to request the passports? Are they to be kept by Parent A until needed by Parent B, and then returned to Parent A once the children are home? Are they kept in a safety deposit box that is accessible by both parents?

If you are not yet divorced and there is no temporary order in place relating to vacations and travel, or if there are gaps in your divorce judgment (or separation agreement) relating to vacations and travel, there are some issues that arise frequently. Many can be handled in advance through sufficient planning and timely communications with your coparent, or, if necessary, through communications between counsel.

For example:

  • You’ve booked a trip to Iceland with the children. Your agreement doesn’t require your coparent to provide the children’s passports, and she refuses to do so. Assuming you haven’t booked travel during a year when your coparent is entitled to first choice of summer vacation weeks, your first step is to reach out to counsel for assistance. Often, experienced counsel can assist and convince the other parent, possibly with intervention from their counsel, to provide passports without Court involvement. If that is unsuccessful, your counsel will likely have to file a motion, and possibly a complaint for modification, in Court. Your motion may be heard on an emergency basis if your travel is imminent.
  • You’ve booked a trip to Spain with the children. Your agreement does not require your coparent to provide you with a notarized travel permission, and he refuses to provide one. Again, your first step is to reach out to counsel for assistance. Often, experienced counsel can assist and convince the other the other parent, possibly with intervention from their counsel, to provide the notarized travel permission without Court involvement. If that is unsuccessful, your counsel will likely have to file a motion, and possibly a complaint for modification, in Court. Your motion may be heard on an emergency basis if your travel is imminent.
  • Your coparent has told you that they are taking the children on vacation to Canada but they won’t give you any details apart from the dates of travel. Your first step, again, is to reach out to counsel, who may be able to assist you in dealing with your coparent or their counsel in order to obtain the information you need without Court involvement. If your order or judgment requires notification of travel plans, your counsel may need to file a complaint for contempt. If it does not, your counsel may need to file a motion for temporary orders and possibly a complaint for modification.

A few final considerations regarding vacation parenting plans and travel:

  • If there are family events that are a high priority for you, negotiate parenting time for these events in advance, communicate with your coparent, and give them as much advance notice as you can.
  • Do not wait until the last minute to communicate with your coparent about summer vacation and travel plans.
  • Do not communicate with your children about vacation and travel plans prematurely. If your coparent hasn’t agreed to your plans yet, or if it’s not your year to choose weeks, don’t make promises to your children that you may not be able to keep.
  • Read all current orders, stipulations, judgments and agreements relating to vacation and travel carefully, and review them well in advance of any planned vacations.