Written by attorney Robert M. Hill

Family Law in Washington State: Parenting Plans 101

The Purpose of a Parenting Plan

The toughest part of a divorce, legal separation, or parentage case is the effect it has on children. Washington law requires that either parents agree to or the court order a plan for raising their children with a focus on the children’s best interest. Washington law does not officially use the terms "custody" and "visitation," and instead provide a residential schedule - called a Parenting Plan - that specifically details the time that the children will reside with each parent. Done right, a Parenting Plan will help resolve and minimize confusion and conflict between the parents.

Do We Have to Have a Parenting Plan?

Anyone finalizing a divorce or legal separation is required to have a final written Parenting Plan. For unmarried couples, a Parenting Plan may or may not be required, depending on the specific circumstances. The Parenting Plan must be approved by the court.

What Are The Elements of a Parenting Plan?

The Parenting Plan has several parts. The residential provisions address schedules for pre-school, the school year, holidays and vacation and lay out the contact that each parent will have with the children. A Decision-making section governs which parent or if both parents jointly will make major decisions about concerns such as education, health care or religious upbringing. Most parenting plans contain Dispute resolution procedures to provide a mechanism for managing parental disagreements about decisions and conflicts concerning the children. And a Limitations section may be used to restrict or limit contact with a parent whose history of substance abuse, domestic violence, or mental health issues, among other things, present a risk of harm to a child. Provisions are made for transportation responsibilities. Many parenting plans address the rights of each parent to participate in extracurricular activities and telephone contact. Specific provisions unique to particular families may be included in a parenting plan to address either specific needs of the children or specific concerns about one or the other parent's conduct.

At What Age Can the Child Choose His or Her Residence?

While there is no age in Washington when a child has a right to decide where he or she lives, the wishes of the children - if they are old enough to rationally express those wishes - are take into consideration in establishing a parenting plan.

Should There Be a Parenting Plan While the Case is Pending?

During the divorce or legal separation process, a temporary Parenting Plan is often agreed to by the parents or adopted by the court while the case is pending. It only operates until a final Parenting Plan is entered.

Who Speaks for my Children?

If an agreement as to the residential schedule can’t be reached, or if one or both parents have engaged in conduct that may be harmful to the children, a Guardian ad Litem or Parenting Investigator may be appointed to investigate and issue a recommendation for residential placement and/or limiting parent contact. A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a neutral, third-party professional who talks to both parents, the children (if they are old enough), and other people who have significant information regarding the children and the parents. The GAL then makes a report to the court, which is considered by the court in determining the final (or temporary) Parenting Plan.

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