As a Co-Parent, When Can I Leave My Child Home Alone?

when can I leave my child home alone

As a co-parent during or following divorce, you may no longer have the authority to make certain unilateral decisions regarding your children’s health and well-being. The restrictions on making decisions unilaterally are most commonly related to matters that are considered “major decisions.”

In Washington, these are commonly decisions related to education (including choice of school and individual education plans for children with disabilities) and non-emergency health care (including immunizations, orthodontics, elective surgeries, counseling, and well-child doctor visits). It may include other issues such as religious upbringing, age of obtaining a driver’s license, or perhaps even tattoos and piercings. Generally speaking, however, decisions that are outside these areas generally fall under the authority of the parent with whom the child is then-residing and are considered “day-to-day decisions.” 

Provisions on how old a child must be before being left home alone are extremely rare in a parenting plan. If it is during a parent’s residential time, this is usually considered a “day-to-day” decision within the discretion of the then-residential parent.

To include such a provision subtly implies that at least one of the parents doesn’t have the common sense or regard for the safety of their children they should — which is the opposite of what is presumed in a parenting plan in which there are 191 factors. It is presumed under the law that healthy parents will make safe decisions on behalf of their children. Where both are considered fit parents, it is typically not necessary or healthy for one parent to be a gatekeeper or hold the role of “boss parent.”  

In divorces and separations, however, it is not unknown for trust to be lost or broken between parents, and one parent may want a provision related to leaving the children home alone to ensure they will always be safe. When this question arises, what is the answer? As with most legal questions, the answer is: It depends.

What does Washington state say about it?

Washington state does not have a law that specifies at what age a child can be left home alone. The Washington Department of Social and Human Services (“DSHS”), however, does provide some guidance. Under DSHS guidelines, generally, children between 9 and 12 years old can be left home alone for less than two hours, and children 13 and older can act as a babysitter for younger children for up to 12 hours. Children 8 years old or younger should not be left home alone. As for a child with a special condition or a disability, DSHS doesn’t advise leaving them home alone either.  

That said, it is important to keep in mind that these recommendations also depend on the individual child’s maturity, parents’ comfort level, and the availability of support such as trustworthy neighbors or friends in the event of an emergency. For additional guidance, you might also want to visit Child Welfare Information Gateway.

What’s in your parenting plan?

In addition to considering your child’s age and maturity, you should consult your parenting plan if you and your partner created one as a part of your separation or divorce before you make decisions about leaving your child home alone. Your parenting plan may require that your co-parent should be asked first if they are available to watch your child before you leave your child home alone or call for a sitter.

In some cases, a parenting plan may restrict how long your child can be left home alone by either co-parent or prohibit them from being left alone entirely. If your parenting plan is silent on this topic and you have an amicable and cooperative co-parenting relationship, discuss with your co-parent the age at which you believe your child can be at home alone and for how long. Written correspondence, such as email, work well to document informal agreements. Where this issue is cause for contention, it is time to consult with your Seattle family law attorney.

What might you put in your parenting plan?

A parenting plan can include a provision that states in a situation in which your child might otherwise be left home alone, the other parent has the right to watch the child. If a parenting plan does contain provisions relating to this issue, it would be important for it to include terms such as the earliest age at which your child may be left home alone, the duration, and the age at which the unsupervised provision would no longer apply. If such a provision finds its way into a formal parenting plan, what is appropriate will be unique to each family and depend on a variety of factors including the child’s age, maturity, any disabilities, and possibly guidance from outside knowledgeable experts and resources. 

Learning to take care of oneself and not get in mischief is an important part of growing up. Leaving a child home alone can contribute to their maturity and help teach responsibility. Even so, what is appropriate for a 16-year-old will not be the same for a 6-year-old. As discussed above, provisions on how old a child must be before being left home alone are extremely rare in a parenting plan. It is not considered a major decision under Washington law.  

The closest construction to this are provisions giving the other parent the right to watch the child if the then-residential parent cannot. But, to reiterate, the issue of leaving a child home alone during a parent’s residential time is otherwise per se a day-to-day decision, not a major decision in Washington.

Of course, parents can elect to add an issue to the list of what constitutes a major decision in their parenting plan. So, certainly, while the court wouldn’t order it on its own, it is possible for two parents by agreement to add the category.

If such a provision is in a parenting plan, one parent cannot simply later decide not to follow it because it doesn’t make sense anymore or isn’t workable for some reason. Like any other provision, it would take a modification action to legally remove it. That’s because the parenting plan is not guidance; it’s a court order. And the parents may not substitute their reasoning for that of the court. The order would have to be modified to remove or change the provision.

There are other factors to consider when deciding whether to leave your kids home alone.

In all likelihood, your parenting plan will not provide guidance regarding when or if you can leave your child home alone. Nevertheless, the decision should be made holistically. Remember, though, if it is in a court-ordered parenting plan, a parent does not have the legal right to ignore and decide on their own it is no longer the right decision for their child. That was and is the decision until the court orders otherwise

Factors to consider are your child’s comfort level with staying home alone, your child’s ability to contact emergency services in case of a crisis, their capacity for following instructions, overall safety considerations, and your ability to trust the child. All of these considerations can change over time. Even if you and your co-parent agree that your child is ready to be left home alone, you should still consult your child before making a final decision.

Contact a Seattle lawyer for advice about leaving your child home alone.

The decision to leave your child home alone, even for a short period of time, might be an important decision for your co-parent and you, albeit not a “major decision” under Washington law, and not a provision that should be added where both parents are fit parents.

Our Seattle team of family lawyers understands the emotional issues that can underlie a milestone decision such as leaving your child home alone and what a potential minefield it can be as it invades the right of healthy then-residential parents to make day-to-day decisions. If one parent is so impaired, then likely there are 191 factors and other elective restrictions in the parenting plan, and such micro-management might be valid in those situations. 

For further guidance on how to navigate the relationship you have with your co-parent and your child, call our office today.

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