Child custody and parenting plans in Washington State

Due to the volume of child custody and parenting plan cases I conduct on a monthly basis, combined with the mis-information and lack of knowledge many clients have about child custody and parenting plans, I want to offer greater clarification about child custody and parenting plans. Additionally, I invite you to contact me directly if you have any questions about the information below or for more information about your custody case.

Washington State Child Custody and Parenting Plan Decisions

What are the factors the court considers when deciding child custody, which in Washington is called a Parenting Plan?

A “Parenting Plan” is a court order that sets forth the amount of time that a child will spend with each parent (the “residential schedule”), the method for resolving disputes between the parents, and whether one or both parents will make major decisions about the child.

How do Washington State courts make child custody and parenting plan decisions?

In Washington, there is no presumption that the child should primarily reside with the parent who has been the primary caregiver although courts often consider this a very important factor.  Instead, the court is required to consider and balance seven factors when determining the provisions of a permanent Child Custody/Parenting Plan.  These factors, found in RCW 26.09.187(3), are as follows, with the first factor given the greatest weight:

  1. The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent;
  2. The agreements of the parties, provided they were entered into knowingly and voluntarily;
  3. 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;
  4. The emotional needs and developmental level of the child;
  5. 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;
  6. 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
  7. Each parent’s employment schedule, and shall make accommodations consistent with those schedules.

When considering these factors, the court must make a decision that is in the “best interests of the child.”  The best interests of the child are served by a parenting arrangement that best maintains a child’s emotional growth, health and stability, and physical care.

Further, the best interest of the child is ordinarily served when the existing pattern of interaction between a parent and child is altered only to the extent necessitated by the changed relationship of the parents or as required to protect the child from physical, mental, or emotional harm.  See RCW 26.09.002.

01 Sole or joint custody

Washington State child custody and parenting plans are governed by RCW 29.09. Although that is the dissolution statute, parenting plans entered under the paternity statute (RCW 26.26) or the non-parental custody statute (RCW 26.10) fall under the criteria in RCW 26.09. While other states use "legal custody" and "physical custody," Washington simply designates one parent as the "primary residential parent." What most people think of as "joint" custody is what we call a "shared residential schedule" in which the child spends about half his/her time with each parent. RCW 26.09.197(3)(b) says, "the court may order that a child frequently alternate his or her residence between the households of the parents for brief and substantially equal intervals of time if such provision is in the best interests of the child." Obviously, practical concerns such as school districts, parents' ability to cooperate and communicate and disruption for the child are very important parts of what is in the child's best interests.

02 Understanding parenting plans

A child custody and parenting plan is nothing more than a court order setting forth the amount of residential time the child will have with each parent. Courts will always interpret and enforce parenting plans according to the plain meaning of the language in the parenting plan. This is why it is so critical that parenting plans be as clear as possible regarding visits, exchanges as well as the rights and responsibilities of each parent. Also, a parenting plan is intended to be in effect well into the future. Parents have to think about the child both now as well as many years from now. What may work when a child is a preschool toddler may be very different than when he/she is 14 years old. School and extracurricular activities play a huge role in whether the court will adopt a shared residential schedule. Parenting plans that split the child's life neatly in two often get much more scrutiny to make sure the division really is in the child's best interests rather than the parents' convenience.

03 Statutory factors for the court

The court must consider the following factors: (i) The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child's relationship with each parent; (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 as defined in RCW 26.09.004(3), 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. Item (i) gets the greatest weight.

04 Parenting functions

In Step 3, item (iii) is very important. Parenting functions are defined as "(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. The court pays close attention to these items!

05 Impact on child support and modification

Having a shared residential schedule does not automatically cancel out child support. Child support is calculated based on the parents' incomes. So even if one parent has the child half the time, if that parent earns way more than what the other parent earns, there may still be a child support obligation. In addition, any extra expenses incurred by demanding "joint" custody (extra gas because of travel, missing time from work, etc) may not be considered by a court in calculating child support. Unfortunately, those expenses are thought to be the product of "be careful what you wish for because you just may get it." In other words, the fact that your position that the child live with you half the time means you are voluntarily incurring significant additional expenses that the other parent should not have to subsidize. Don't just agree to a specific parenting plan just to get the case over with. Modifications are HARD! You might not be able to undo your decision later on!

Types of Parenting Plan Examples

The typical parenting plan

The baseline parenting plan in Washington is what we sometimes call an ‘every-other-weekend’ plan. As the name implies, this type of parenting plan affords visitation to the non-custodial parent every-other weekend, plus usually a short weekly visit of about 2-4 hours. The exact language might be something to the following effect:

“The child shall reside primarily with Mother, except for the following days and times when the child shall reside with Father: From Friday at 5 pm to Sunday at 5 pm every-other weekend, and every Wednesday from 5 pm to 8 pm.”

Of course, a baseline parenting plan would state much more than the general visitation schedule. It would also contain sections on holidays, transportation, and more. You can find most of these details in our other articles and videos. If you’re interested in a baseline parenting plan, you might want to review our articles on a) a Normal Parenting Plan in Washington State, b) the Transportation Arrangements Section of a Proposed Parenting Plan, and c) a WA Parenting Plan's 'Other Provisions'.

The long-distance parenting plan

Washington courts usually adopt a long-distance parenting plan when the parties live long distances from each other—distances that would make weekly child exchanges impractical. If, for instance, the parents live in different states or countries, a long-distance parenting plan would probably be appropriate. A long-distance parenting plan generally affords the non-custodial parent blocks of time during summer and winter break, but little time during the school year.

Joint custody

Joint custody is rare in Washington but becoming more common. In essence, joint custody means each parent receives half the residential time with the child. This often takes the form of a ‘week-on, week-off’ schedule. For example, the parenting plan might state as follows:

“The child shall reside with Mother for 1 week, with Father the next, and continue alternating between the 2 households on a ‘week-on, week-off’ basis. The exchange time each week shall be Friday at 5 pm.”

Courts shy away from joint custody in contentious custody disputes; in combative relationships, judges assume it is better for a child to have a home-base, so to speak. Similarly, courts usually refuse to order split custody when either parent lives more than a short drive from the child’s school. So, if you want equal residential time, strive to enter an agreed parenting plan with the other parent and/or ensure you live near the other parent. A third trick to obtaining joint custody is to request a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). This is because some GALs favor joint custody, and judges will often adopt whatever parenting plan an assigned GAL recommends. Just make sure you find out which GALs favor joint custody and specifically request them by name.

Infant parenting plan

Experts in infant psychology typically recommend a) that infants have shorter but more frequent interactions with the non-custodial parent, and b) that infants not spend overnights away from the custodial parent. If the mother is breastfeeding, this commonly means she receives primary care, and the father visits with the child several times per week—perhaps every day—for a few hours each time. Often parenting plans for infants contain several stages, culminating in an every-other-weekend or split-custody plan. We have an article on infant parenting plans.

Restricted parenting plan

A restricted parenting plan may be appropriate if a parent presents a danger to the child. Often this means the parent has a history of drug abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse. Restricted plans typically entail short sessions of supervised visitation—no overnights or alone time unless the parent demonstrates he or she is on a successful path to recovery.

For more information about our services and child custody and parenting plans, click here.

Original Information Source:

  1. http://www.genesislawfirm.com/types-parenting-plans-wa
  2. https://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/how-do-washington-courts-decide-on-joint-or-sole-custody-in-parenting-plans
  3. https://www.integrativefamilylaw.com/resources/parenting-plans/what-is-a-parenting-plan/