Can You Alter a Child Custody Arrangement?

Can You Alter a Child Custody Arrangement?

Co-parenting, especially child custody (or, as we say in Washington state, residential time), is easily the hardest part of divorce. If you do not have children, then a year after the divorce is finalized, you might find that weeks or months have passed since you thought about your ex-spouse. When you are co-parenting your children with your ex-spouse, though, the pain of your divorce may keep coming back every time your ex says something inconsiderate to you or your children or every time your ex undermines your parenting decisions or sabotages the good habits you are trying to instill in your children. 

Reaching a child custody arrangement that works for your family is hard work; for many families, ironing out the details of the parenting plan is the most time-consuming part of divorce mediation. The parenting plan is designed to govern your co-parenting relationship until your youngest child becomes an adult, but sometimes circumstances change, requiring you to modify your child custody arrangement. A Seattle parenting plans lawyer can help you modify your court-ordered parenting plan after your divorce has become final.

What is a parenting plan, and what does it do?

If a couple that has minor children files for divorce, the court will not finalize the divorce without issuing a court-ordered parenting plan. The parenting plan contains all the details about which days of the year the children will spend with each parent and about how they will get from one parent’s house to the other. The parenting plan also indicates which parent has the final say about certain decisions regarding the children’s education, extracurricular activities, and non-emergency medical care. 

Most couples are able to set the terms of their parenting plans during divorce mediation, and then the judge simply signs the parenting plan into a court order.  If you and your spouse reach an impasse about one or more aspects of the parenting plan, the judge will decide at trial. People often talk about the courts awarding residential time to one parent and taking it away from another, but the goal is for both parents to have adequate parenting time. In practice, judges do not create parenting plans out of whole cloth unless the parents cannot agree on any aspect of co-parenting or refuse to engage with each other about agreeing to a time-sharing schedule.

Why is a parenting plan important?

From a legal standpoint, parenting plans are important because they form the basis of child support orders. The court cannot calculate child support until it knows what percent of the time your children are with you and what percent of the time they are with your ex-spouse. From your perspective, though, parenting plans serve an even more practical purpose. The parenting plan prevents you from having to argue with your ex-spouse about every weekend and every holiday. 

The parenting plan may clearly specify, for example, that, in even-numbered years, the children spend spring break with you, so you are free to book a trip to Disneyland with your children during spring break, no matter what your ex says. If your ex’s relatives fly into town on short notice and really want to see your kids, but you will be away, they would need to request a different time to visit. It is your parenting time, so you get to stick to your plans.  

Likewise, every parenting plan is unique. Parenting plans can quickly shut down arguments about whether you are keeping the kids away from your ex or whether your ex is devoting enough time to parenting. What counts is whether you and your ex are following the court-ordered parenting plan that the court issued for you. You have the right to seek legal remedies through the court if your ex-spouse does not abide by the terms of the parenting plan.

Why Do Parents Choose to Change Their Parenting Plans After Divorce?

You should put enough work into your parenting plan that, when it is finalized, sticking to it until your children are grown up will be tolerable. If your children have already started school when you get divorced, then you can safely predict that their routine will not change much between now and when they graduate from high school; the vast majority of parenting plans for school-aged children and teens have the children spending every school night with the same parent. 

With parenting plans for younger children, there is more room for variation. It is preferable for infants and toddlers to have shorter intervals of time with each parent so that, at any given moment, the child has spent at least a few hours with each parent in the previous three days. Parenting plans tailored to infants often require modification when the child begins school.

Changes to a parent’s employment or family situation are another common reason for parenting plan modifications. For example, a parent’s new job may require a long commute or different hours, therefore making it impossible for the parent to abide by the old parenting plan. Likewise, when one parent remarries, they may want to modify the parenting plan to maximize or minimize the time that the children spend with their new stepsiblings.

How to Modify Your Parenting Plan in Washington State

In some cases, co-parents can work out the details of a modified parenting plan between themselves. If you and your ex-spouse do this, you should have the court formalize your new co-parenting arrangement so that it can make any necessary adjustments to the child support order. 

If only one parent wants to change the parenting plan, or if you and your ex cannot agree on the changes you want to make, then you should file a motion with the court to modify your parenting plan. The court will determine whether there is a good reason to consider a change and then will schedule a hearing. After you and your ex-spouse present your respective sides of the story, the judge will decide on a new version of the parenting plan that serves the best interests of the children.

Contact Elise Buie Family Law About Child Custody Cases

Conflict over parenting time can become highly emotional. At Elise Buie Family Law, our team of compassionate family law attorneys understand how much stress such disputes can place on the co-parenting relationship and approach every situation with empathy and care.  

A family law attorney at our firm can help you modify your parenting plan or resolve co-parenting disputes with your ex-spouse. Together, we have decades of cumulative experience helping families create livable, workable parenting plans that place children front and center, prioritizing their best interests. Contact us at Elise Buie Family Law in Seattle, Washington, to schedule a consultation.


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