New Utah law brings confusion, contention for some divorced parents this holiday season

Dec 18, 2022, 9:28 AM
Sen. Todd Weiler...
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, speaks at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Jan. 26. He sponsored a bill that changes the suggested holiday schedule for divorced parents. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
(Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The holiday season is a time when being with family is important, and for divorced parents with young children, it can be heartbreaking to split time with their children with a former spouse.

“I’m not going to say that I don’t get super sad,” Liz Beebe said.

She has a 15-year-old daughter and has been splitting holiday times in half for the last 13 years.

This year she and her ex-husband ran into some additional conflict when they did not agree on whether they should be using a new holiday parent time schedule outlined in a 2022 bill that altered the recommended schedule in Utah’s code.

Previously parents using the state code’s suggested schedule split the school break in half each year; the updated suggested schedule now picks a consistent day, Dec. 27, for a child to be passed from one parent to the other. The new schedule, combined with the Salt Lake City School District schedule, could mean Beebe has time with her daughter from when school is out on Dec. 23 to Dec. 27 — just three full days — when her ex-husband would have 12.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who ran the bill, said the changes were a “strong recommendation” from the family law section of the Utah Bar Association. Weiler said there are ambiguities in the previous statute that can lead to parents needing to go back to lawyers before the holidays according to a report from KSL.com.

It had the split “halfway through the holiday period” and at 1 p.m. with an odd number of days in the break or 7 p.m. with an even number of days.

“Each of us have thousands of divorced constituents with children and this bill is going to help clarify who gets the child on which days. … I think it’s going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars of attorneys fees,” he said to Utah senators.

The law passed after one committee meeting and just one public comment was made. No legislators asked questions about the bill, though one voted against it. The bill passed on the final day of the legislative session after the Utah House waived all committee and reading requirements to get it through at the end.

Weiler said whether the new schedules apply to divorces that were finalized previously depends on the language in each decree of divorce, but most divorces from after May 4, 2022, including modifications, will be using the new schedule.

After looking more closely at her divorce documents, which outline the previous code, Beebe thinks the new schedule doesn’t apply to her and she hopes to have the entire first half of the break. Even if it doesn’t apply in her case, Beebe said it is not fair for other parents in the same district or others.

“It makes no sense. … The wording is not equitable,” she said.

Weiler said if both parents are able to agree on a schedule for the holidays each year, judges will not be concerned. He said many parents won’t know about the change and will continue what they have been doing in previous years, even if the new schedule would apply.

“I think it’s always best for divorced parents, if possible, to just have a discussion and work out something that makes sense based on their circumstances,” Weiler said.

There is no need for that discussion to get to the court, but Weiler said if the parents don’t agree on which schedule they should follow, it may be beneficial for them to talk to lawyers or a mediator, someone who can act as a referee.

The schedule outlined in Utah’s code does not need to be used for all divorces, but it is in many. If the husband and wife cannot agree and the divorce comes before a judge, they will likely leave with the holiday parent time schedules outlined in state code, Weiler said.

Beebe said initially her divorce did not use the state’s suggested plan, but after some conflicts, they went back and included it in a modification to their divorce.

“Unless the two people have a really good working relationship, it always turns into a fight and so that’s why I think lawyers do encourage people to follow that,” Beebe said. She said prioritizing the child can help.

report from KSL.com in the new code with one specifically designed for children under 5 years old.

Beebe said her ex-husband thinks the previous version wasn’t fair. Last year, halfway through the break landed on Christmas Day at 1 p.m.

Weiler said that swap on Christmas Day ruined the holiday for parents, and is one of the reasons the report from KSL.com initiated a change. For parents who live further apart, it could also mean driving on Christmas.

Weiler said he got some pushback for the bill, but almost everyone who contacted him was someone who was divorced and wanted the statute to be what would work best for them, although it might not even apply without a modification to their divorce.

Weiler said some parents who reached out were concerned that the way the school’s break falls in 2022 and 2023, they would be getting the shorter part of the break both years — but he said hopefully over five or 10 years this should eventually equal out.

“That’s kind of an unusual situation that we weren’t contemplating,” Weiler said about the school breaks.

The Salt Lake City School District lets students out the latest for winter break this year, on Dec. 23, but multiple other districts let students out one day earlier. In Grand School District and Carbon School District, the break begins after school on Dec. 16, and students go back to school beginning Jan. 2, meaning parents who have their child for the first half of the break will have about twice the amount of time as the other parent.

This new suggested schedule was added to Utah’s laws after this year’s school calendars were set. But in the future, some school districts may try to factor in students with divorced parents and try to make Dec. 27 near a midpoint in their break.

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New Utah law brings confusion, contention for some divorced parents this holiday season