Until 1987, Washington, like most states, awarded “custody” of the children to one of the parents at the conclusion of a divorce or separation case. This changed with the passage of the Parenting Act. Today, instead of ordering child custody, in Washington state, the court adopts “parenting plans.”
Parenting plans set forth the residential time (physical custody) a child spends with each parent, how major decision-making authority is allocated between the parents, and other parenting arrangements that are important and unique to the children of the family in question. Residential time refers to the residential schedule that you, your co-parent, and your child will follow, which determines how much time you each spend with your child and where your child will live. This includes schedules for school-age children, summer schedules, holiday schedules, and contingency plans in the event of scheduling conflicts.
Major decision-making authority refers to the legal ability of a parent to make choices for their child regarding specific, carved-out categories of decisions pertaining to the children’s well-being, and are commonly limited to issues such as education and non-emergency health care. Occasionally, additional topics will be categorized by the court or the parents as major decisions, such as religious upbringing and childcare providers. As a general rule, however, each parent is presumed to have their children’s welfare in mind and has the authority to make day-to-day decisions concerning the children while the children are in their respective care without needing to consult the other parent.
Sole decision-making authority can be granted to one parent, or parents can share joint decision-making authority. If a category of decisions is subject to joint decision-making, the parents must agree on the course of action, and neither can make the decision unilaterally. In every decision, the emphasis is placed on the child’s well-being and an effort to keep a child from becoming the subject of a battle between parents.
In Washington state, a fill-in-blank type form is available that addresses areas of parenting that are common to many families. That said, there are likely as many types of residential schedules as their families because each family’s circumstances are unique. Among these, there are three common approaches. They are (1) a plan in which the children spend their time nearly 50-50 with each parent, (2) a plan in which both parents are fit but one parent is the primary residential parent, and (3) a plan in which one parent is the primary residential parent and the other parent’s time, contact or decision-making rights are limited.
For 50-50 shared arrangements, residential time is divided as equally as possible among both parents. The arrangement can appear in various forms, with the child switching from home to home each week, or other scheduled rotations. But fundamentally, each parent has equal parenting time.
In arrangements in which one parent is the primary residential parent, the child resides more days of the year with one parent and visits or resides with the other parent according to a schedule. A classic example of this is where the child resides with one parent during the school week and with the other parent on certain weekends, mid-week visits, and holidays. If one parent lives far away, a schedule may be established such that the child only resides with a parent for longer holidays due to the distance and travel required.
Limited visitation may arise when one parent’s ability to take care of the children unsupervised is determined to be unsafe, such as in the event of abuse, drug addiction, or one of the other bases that have been designated by Washington as a basis for restrictions. This means that another adult is required to facilitate and supervise the parent’s visitation with the children.
Establishing scheduled residential time can be a positive for both parents and your child. It has the potential to reduce conflict between the co-parents and creates stability and predictability for the child. If you know in advance when your child will be with their other parent, you can avoid many schedule-related arguments.
Having a residential schedule should not be viewed by the adults as separating your child from one of their parents. A parent who does not have primary residence may also be devastated from being separated from their child as well. And from the child’s viewpoint, certainly if the parents were not divorcing, the child might have continued to reside with both parents every day. But as the lives of the adults transition to moving in separate directions, this is no longer possible. So the focus for the parents and the court should be to create a residential schedule for the children that reflects safety, predictability, and quality time to the extent possible given the circumstances.
How decision-making authority should be allocated for your children may be a difficult decision, one riddled with complications. Depending on the decision-making terms ordered, either one or both parents will be involved. If both you and your co-parent are granted joint decision-making authority, you may feel less stressed about decisions important to you and your child’s other parent since you each have the other to help decide what to do.
If, on the other hand, one of you is granted sole decision-making authority, it is because either both parents agreed or the court determined that it was in the children’s best interest and safety that the designated parent unilaterally make those determinations.
Establishing the residential time and decision-making authority terms of a parenting plan is about doing what is best for your child. There are a variety of factors to consider, but prioritizing your child’s well-being and safety are among the most important. A parenting plan, discussed below, can help distill what is in the best interests of your child.
To establish residential time and/or decision-making authority, you will need to consider creating a parenting plan. If you are divorcing and have dependent children, a parenting plan will be required. A parenting plan determines the child’s residential schedule with each parent, who will make important decisions for the child, and how disagreements between parents will be handled. It establishes residential time and a plan for you and your co-parent to best support your child.
There are two kinds of parenting plans in Washington state: temporary and permanent. Temporary parenting plans, as the name suggests, are often used while litigation or mediation is ongoing. In instances where the child’s parents live long distances apart and would not be reasonably able to share residential time, a long-distance parenting plan might be established. A final parenting plan is adopted by the court at the conclusion of your divorce and is the plan you and your co-parent will follow until your child turns 18. Modifications to parenting plans are difficult and usually occur only under a limited set of circumstances.
A judge will often decide whether the parents have joint decision-making authority or if one parent will have sole decision-making authority. Though Washington state prioritizes keeping both parents in the picture whenever possible, there may be instances where one parent should not be involved in this decision-making. Under RCW 26.09.191, reasons by which parents should not be involved in decision-making include abandonment, neglect, child abuse, domestic violence, assault, or sex offense.
If a parent’s contact with the children will be impacted by any of these issues, the court must limit that parent’s contact with their children and right to make decisions for them. If a parent presents other problems that may harm the best interests of the child, such as a history of neglect, emotional or physical problems, substance abuse, lack of emotional ties, abusive use of conflict, or withholding the child, then the court may also limit that parent’s ability to make decisions or contact with them.
One parent can also have sole decision-making authority if both parents are opposed to sharing authority or if the court determines one parent is reasonably opposed to joint decision-making. If both you and your spouse are willing and able to agree on sharing decision-making authority on major issues, it is likely that you will be granted joint decision-making authority for your child.
Judges determining parenting plans consider a number of factors, including the child’s relationship with each parent and others in the household, as well as each parent’s ability to care for their child. As already mentioned, courts will also take any history of abuse, violence, or substance abuse into account. Fundamentally, the most important goal in the judge’s decision is the best interests of the child.
In Washington state, if you file for divorce and have children, you must file a proposed parenting plan. You may be able to determine your residential time without court involvement, but you still must have a final parenting plan signed by the court in order to conclude your case.
There are other instances where you may file a parenting plan, such as to establish parentage. In this case, if you want a parenting plan, you still need to file and go to court to create a legally binding plan.
Establishing a parenting plan can become one of the most significant sources of contention during a divorce. Our team of empathetic family law attorneys understands how emotionally-charged issues having to do with children can be and are familiar with navigating amicable to the most high-conflict situations. We can help. Contact our Seattle team of family law attorneys today.