What is a parenting plan?

In all divorces involving children, the Court will adopt a parenting plan the Court determines to be in the children’s best interests. A parenting plan is a court ordered document that sets forth the residential schedule for the children throughout the year. The plan provides for when the children shall reside with each parent during the school year, school breaks, holidays, and special occasions. A parenting plan also provides for who will make decisions for the children, and how disputes about the parenting arrangements will be resolved.

What does “best interests" mean?

Pursuant to RCW 26.09.184, the “objectives of the permanent parenting plan are to:

(a) Provide for the child's physical care;

(b) Maintain the child's emotional stability;

(c) Provide for the child's changing needs as the child grows and matures, in a way that minimizes the need for future modifications to the permanent parenting plan;

(d) Set forth the authority and responsibilities of each parent with respect to the child…;

(e) Minimize the child's exposure to harmful parental conflict;

(f) Encourage the parents … to meet their responsibilities to their minor children through agreements in the permanent parenting plan, rather than by relying on judicial intervention; and

(g) To otherwise protect the best interests of the child…"

The criteria the Court considers when setting for the residential provision in a parenting plan is as follows:

(i) The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child's relationship with each parent (this factor is given the greatest weight);

(ii) The agreements of the parties, provided they were entered into knowingly and voluntarily;

(iii) Each parent's past and potential for future performance of parenting functions, including whether a parent has taken greater responsibility for performing parenting functions relating to the daily needs of the child;

(iv) The emotional needs and developmental level of the child;

(v) The child's relationship with siblings and with other significant adults, as well as the child's involvement with his or her physical surroundings, school, or other significant activities;

(vi) The wishes of the parents and the wishes of a child who is sufficiently mature to express reasoned and independent preferences as to his or her residential schedule; and

(vii) Each parent's employment schedule, and shall make accommodations consistent with those schedules.

According to the statute, “The court shall make residential provisions for each child which encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable, and nurturing relationship with the child, consistent with the child's developmental level and the family's social and economic circumstances." RCW 26.09.187

What does “parenting functions" mean?

The statute defines parenting functions as follows: “Parenting functions" means those aspects of the parent-child relationship in which the parent makes decisions and performs functions necessary for the care and growth of the child. Parenting functions include:

(a) Maintaining a loving, stable, consistent, and nurturing relationship with the child;

(b) Attending to the daily needs of the child, such as feeding, clothing, physical care and grooming, supervision, health care, and day care, and engaging in other activities which are appropriate to the developmental level of the child and that are within the social and economic circumstances of the particular family;

(c) Attending to adequate education for the child, including remedial or other education essential to the best interests of the child;

(d) Assisting the child in developing and maintaining appropriate interpersonal relationships;

(e) Exercising appropriate judgment regarding the child's welfare, consistent with the child's developmental level and the family's social and economic circumstances; and

(f) Providing for the financial support of the child.

Does the Court have to decide what the residential provisions in a parenting plan will be?

If the parents agree to the residential provision of a parenting plan, the Court will usually adopt it. However, the Court, at all times, has the power to approve or deny an agreed parenting plan. Agreed parenting arrangements still have to be in the children's best interests.

Custody & Primary Parent.

“Custody" is not used in Washington State, as it is traditionally understood. Washington State requires parenting arrangements to encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable, and nurturing relationship with the children, taking into account each child's developmental level and the family's social and economic circumstances. “Primary Parent" simply means that parent who has the majority of overnights with the children in a calendar year. However, sometimes the children will live with each parent equally. In that instance, there is no primary parent.

Can children decide which parent to live with?

The short answer is no. The parents, and, ultimately the Court, make residential provisions for the children. According to the statute, the Court will consider “the wishes of a child who is sufficiently mature to express reasoned and independent preferences as to his or her residential schedule." Rarely however, does a Judge ask the children what their preferences are. In most cases, a child’s preferences are expressed though a Guardian ad Litem.

What is a Guardian ad Litem?

A Guardian ad Litem (GAL [G-A-L] for short) is a trained and qualified person appointed by the Court to represent the children’s best interests. A GAL is usually a social worker or attorney trained to represent children. A GAL investigates the situation and makes a recommendation to the court about what would be best for the children. GAL’s are not needed, nor are they required in most cases.

The background check.

Prior to the entry of a final parent parenting plan, the Court must first run a “background check" on the parties. The Court consults the Judicial Information System (JIS). Some counties require the parties to submit a form in advance of the final hearing so as to allow the Court the time and opportunity to consult the JIS.

Do I have to take a parenting class?

Most counties require the parents to take a parenting seminar prior to entering a final parenting plan. In Snohomish County, the “For the Kids’ Sake" seminar is the preferred course. In King County, it is “What About the Children." At the conclusion of the seminar, the parent will receive a certificate to be filed with the Court. The parents usually take the seminar separately (i.e., not at the same time). LSPR 94.03

What happens if a parent does not follow the parenting plan?

A parenting plan is a court order. Should a parent fail to follow a parenting plan in good faith, ultimately that parent can be found in contempt of court. If a parent is found in contempt, the court could order make up of lost residential time, fines, payment of the other parent’s attorneys’ fees or even jail.

Prior to the filing of a motion for contempt, most Courts require the parents go to dispute resolution. Dispute resolution provisions are contained in the parenting plan: arbitration, mediation, or counseling may be required. In some plans, only court action is ordered.

Resolution Washington: http://www.resolutionwa.org/

How do I change a parenting plan?

Once a final parenting plan is ordered by the Court, absent agreement of the parents, the plan is difficult to change. “Minor" changes to a parenting plan are less difficult (e.g., changes to start or end times. “Major" changes to a parenting plan (e.g., a change to who is the primary parent—from one home to the other) are granted in limited circumstances.

As set forth in RCW 26.09.260, “the court shall not modify a prior custody decree or a parenting plan unless it finds, upon the basis of facts that have arisen since the prior decree or plan or that were unknown to the court at the time of the prior decree or plan, that a substantial change has occurred in the circumstances of the child or the nonmoving party and that the modification is in the best interest of the child and is necessary to serve the best interests of the child. The effect of a parent's military duties potentially impacting parenting functions shall not, by itself, be a substantial change of circumstances justifying a permanent modification of a prior decree or plan.

(2) In applying these standards, the court shall retain the residential schedule established by the decree or parenting plan unless:

(a) The parents agree to the modification;

(b) The child has been integrated into the family of the petitioner with the consent of the other parent in substantial deviation from the parenting plan;

(c) The child's present environment is detrimental to the child's physical, mental, or emotional health and the harm likely to be caused by a change of environment is outweighed by the advantage of a change to the child; or

(d) The court has found the nonmoving parent in contempt of court at least twice within three years because the parent failed to comply with the residential time provisions in the court-ordered parenting plan, or the parent has been convicted of custodial interference in the first or second degree…"

Not only is it difficult to modify a parenting, but to do so, whether it is a minor modification or major modification, can be a procedural nightmare. Specific legal procedures are required in order for the Court to even consider a modification of a final parenting plan (e.g., the Court must first find “adequate cause" to allow a petition for modification to move forward to hearing or trial).

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