Common Custody Issues: Birthday Parties

Posted on Feb 14, 2024 by Katie Carter

There are a few issues that seem to pop up again and again and, if you’ve been in family law as long as I have, you’re bound to see it.  If you’re going through a divorce or custody case, you may very well come across it, too – which is why I write today.

It may not be the first concern that you have when you decide to separate or divorce, but many of the custody and visitation issues that come up along the way can have a wide-reaching impact on your case.  After all, custody and visitation are always modifiable based on a material change in circumstances so, if you don’t work things out today, chances are good that you’ll find yourself in court again and again.

There’s no limit to the number of times you or your ex can petition and re-petition to modify your existing custody and visitation agreement or court order.  In general, I say that the best defense is a good offense – so, in other words, making sure that you’ve come up with an incredibly detailed custody and visitation agreement (you won’t have the freedom to do this if you litigate and the judge issues an order) that clearly maps out what will happen over the coming days, weeks, and months.

One of the biggest problems that I see is when parents are too vague in their agreement.  I mean, I get it – the devil is in the details, right?  It is difficult to talk through everything and disagreements are bound to arise.  You guys are splitting up for a reason, and it’s not because you get along soooo well!  It’s tempting to just say, well, screw it, we’ll figure it out later when we aren’t so angry – but that’s a slippery slope.

If you don’t figure it out now, you and your soon to be ex will likely go into your post-divorce life with different expectations.  He will likely think that he’ll take on more or that you’ll allow more flexibility than you’re comfortable with.  You may think that, after divorce, you’ll be able to reinforce some healthy boundaries.  These beliefs can clash.  It’s not that anyone is necessarily wrong, per se, it’s just that you’re going into the same situation with a different set of expectations.

A clear agreement resolves this problem and ensures that you both go into your post-divorce life knowing exactly what to expect.  No one gets sour grapes because everyone knows ahead of time what it’ll look like.  Trust me: sour grapes can be expensive.  No one is willing to throw more money at a custody and visitation case than an angry coparent!

But, never having been in this position before, it may be difficult to think of all the things that may come up later on down the line.  Really, you can’t be too specific – but what should you include?

Consider this article my suggestion that you include something that may seem, at this point in time, to be relatively inconsequential: birthday parties.

Yes.  Birthday parties.  Both birthday parties for your own children and the birthday parties for your children’s friends that they will inevitably be invited to attend.  (Believe me, as a parent of young children, birthday parties come up a LOT.)

When your children have birthday parties

Coparenting is challenging, especially if you’re new to navigating these challenges.  It’s easy to use coparenting to become competitive with your coparent, even if you don’t necessarily mean for this to happen.

It’s not even necessarily a matter of competitiveness; if you’re feeling guilt or shame over the split, you may be tempted to overcompensate for your kids in the name of health and healing.  But, believe me: a fancy birthday party can’t overcome constant fighting between coparents.

You may be tempted to throw a big birthday party – or you may find that your child’s other parent does.  You can see why: it’s a large, public show of how much you love your child and, by extension, what a good parent you are.  You don’t have to involve your child’s friend’s parents in your divorce, you just have to extend a birthday invitation and they show up to see you lavishing love and attention and a fabulous experience on your child.  What better example of great parenting could there be?

The guest list can also be an issue.  Do you invite your child other parent – and, potentially, his significant other – or do you snub them?

If you schedule a party, does he schedule a competing one?  Is it bigger or fancier?  Does he invite all of the child’s friends, too, leaving your child’s friends and their parents to decide which party to attend?  (Surely, no one expects one family to attend more than one party for the same child!)

Handle birthday parties in your separation agreement or your custody agreement, if you’re modifying (or not divorcing).  Specify that one parent can host a birthday party in odd years and the other in even years, if it’s important to you.  Specify that, if one parent hosts a party, both parents will be invited – including, if necessary, grandparents and other extended family members that belong to both sides.  If you’d rather, you could even put in that you’ll host a birthday party and share the expense associated with it.  There are a million different provisions you could include, but one general goal: to minimize the destruction associated with competitive coparenting, dueling birthday parties, and the animosity that can come from refusing to invite the child’s other parent.  (Bonus: None of your friends get dragged into your drama.)

I know: you’re well-meaning.  But these things can ramp up quickly and spiral out of control.  It’s a good idea to talk about birthday parties and how you’ll handle them ahead of time when it’s not crunch time and cooler heads can prevail.

When your child is invited to birthday parties

Is it just me, or does it feel like there is a birthday party *literally* every single weekend?  If I had one iota of the social life my children have…  but, then again, who has time, because I’m constantly chauffeuring children to birthday parties.

Birthday parties for other children will come up.  And, now that you’re sharing parenting time (not necessarily saying that your parenting time will fall under the shared category, but just recognizing that time will be divided between both coparents to some degree), some of them will fall on your parenting time – and some will fall on his.

How do you handle this?

The best defense is a good offense.  Put it in your separation agreement, but make sure to consider all the details.

I think a good rule of thumb is to put the birthday parties immediately into the shared calendar.  I like OurFamilyWizard for coparent communications and a shared family calendar, all in the same app.  Using OurFamilyWizard, you can even scan and upload a picture of the invitation so that your coparent has all of the relevant information.  (That way, you don’t have to field multiple questions about what you know that he doesn’t – also a reoccurring problem for coparenting families.)

You can’t dictate how your coparent spends his time with the child during his parenting time, but you can let him know about the party.  That’s really it – then, it’s up to him whether to take the child or not.  It’s a good idea to include some of the details that a dad probably isn’t that familiar with, including that he should RSVP and, if he’s going, to purchase and wrap a suitable present.

That’s it.  That’s all you can do.

Don’t gatekeep the information; share it.  And then let him handle it.  Don’t take it upon yourself to discuss with him in greater detail, remind him to RSVP, or – God forbid! – purchase, wrap, and hand deliver a present for him to take with him to the party.  If shared custody means never having to pack a suitcase, it also means that you don’t have to continue to take on ALL of the mental load associated with his parenting time, too.  He is responsible for his own parenting time.  You should inform him of the associated responsibilities – the separation agreement or custody agreement is a good place to do this – and then let him actually take responsibility for it.

You can take responsibility for your own parenting time, including whether you RSVP yes (or no, because you’d rather die – which I can relate to completely), too.  You don’t have to do anything and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

For more information or to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.