Washington State Parenting Plan Laws

Deciding on custody and parenting time can be one of the most challenging aspects of separation or divorce. Parents have the option to resolve custody on their own or leave it up to a judge to decide during trial. The judge’s main goal is to create a parenting arrangement that prioritizes the child’s health, emotional growth, and physical care.

Overview of Washington State Custody Laws

When parents separate or divorce, they are required to establish a custody arrangement, also known as a “parenting plan.” Parents have the choice to submit a joint parenting plan or individual plans outlining their custody preferences. A parenting plan is essentially a proposal to the judge and does not become official or enforceable until it is made into a court order.

In most cases, the judge will require parents to attend mediation and try to reach an agreement. Custody can be resolved as part of a divorce, separation, abuse, neglect, or guardianship case. The child’s needs are central to the judge’s decision-making process.

What Is a Parenting Plan?

A parenting plan is a custody schedule that covers various aspects, including:

  • Decision-making responsibility for each parent
  • Residential provisions, such as where the child will live
  • Visitation schedule for holidays and summer vacations
  • Transportation responsibilities for both parents
  • Child support arrangements
  • Dispute resolution methods

Washington state custody laws recognize both temporary and permanent parenting plans.

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Temporary Parenting Plan

In cases where there is no existing parenting plan, the judge may issue a temporary parenting plan. This plan is put in place for a limited period, such as during the finalization of a divorce or custody case. Like a permanent plan, a temporary parenting plan addresses parental rights regarding medical and educational decisions, as well as visitation and exchange arrangements.

Permanent Parenting Plan

A permanent parenting plan is a final court order. Parents can either agree upon a permanent plan or leave the decision up to the judge. The goal of a permanent parenting plan is to provide for the child’s current and future needs. Once adopted, both parents must adhere to its terms until the child turns 18, is emancipated, or the plan is modified.

How Does the Parenting Plan Accommodate Visitation Rights?

A parenting plan, whether temporary or permanent, outlines visitation rights for each parent. In most cases, it is in the child’s best interests to have regular and consistent visitation with both parents. When one parent has primary physical custody, the other parent will receive regular visits.

Washington’s child custody guidelines establish a minimum visitation schedule, ensuring that the noncustodial parent has one weeknight visit and visits every other weekend. While a judge may grant additional visitation time, they cannot award less than the minimum amount. Even in cases involving an abusive parent, the judge is likely to allow visits with appropriate safeguards in place. For instance, the judge may require supervised visits until they are confident that the child is safe in the abusive parent’s care.

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How Does a Judge Decide Custody in Washington?

When creating a permanent parenting plan, a judge must determine whether parents should share physical and legal custody, also known as “parenting time” and “decision-making authority”. Several factors influence this decision:

  • The parents’ ability to cooperate
  • Each parent’s involvement in decision-making for the child
  • The parents’ proximity to each other
  • The parents’ willingness to work together

In addition to the above factors, the judge evaluates other circumstances, including:

  • The quality and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent
  • Each parent’s role in the child’s daily care
  • The child’s emotional and developmental needs
  • Each parent’s mental health
  • The child’s adjustment to home, school, and community
  • The child’s relationships with siblings and extended family
  • The child’s preferences, if mature enough to express a well-reasoned choice
  • Any history of domestic violence
  • Each parent’s work schedule
  • Other relevant factors

While no single factor determines custody, Washington child custody laws prioritize the child’s relationship with each parent. Gender does not play a role in custody decisions, but each parent’s parenting involvement may influence the judge’s decision.

Modifying Parenting Plans in Washington

As circumstances change over time, what worked for a family when their child was young may no longer be suitable. Either parent can request a modification of custody in Washington. However, for a judge to consider the request, the parent seeking the modification must demonstrate a material change in circumstances that warrants a custody change in the child’s best interests.

A child expressing a desire to live with the other parent may not be enough to justify a custody change unless other factors are involved. In Washington, a judge considers the preferences of a child aged 12 or older. If an older child requests a switch, the judge will only grant it if it serves the child’s best interests.

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For example, if the custodial parent has an abusive live-in partner, prevents visits, or if the child is struggling significantly in school, a judge may modify custody to provide a more stable environment. Ultimately, the outcome of a modification case depends on the unique needs of the child.

If you have any questions about Washington child custody laws, it’s advisable to consult a local family law attorney for professional advice.

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