When parents make the difficult decision to get a divorce or legal separation, the most important issue that faces them is how to handle their future relationships with their children, which includes determining custody, visitation and decision-making procedures that are in the children’s best interest.
In the State of Washington, this means creating a document that outlines where and with whom the children live, and what their schedules will be with each parent. This document is called a “Parenting Plan”.
In Washington, a parenting plan must be filed with the court in matters where child custody is involved as part of a divorce or legal separation, as well as in parentage cases (deciding who a child’s legal parents are), custody involving unmarried parents, and changes of custody. Even if the parents come to an agreement to the terms of the parenting plan, which often happens through negotiation, it is important to understand that the parenting plan still must be approved by the court, after a judge agrees that its terms are in the best interests of the children. This means that a parenting plan in Washington is a court order, and legally enforceable in court.
So, what is included in a parenting plan?
Custody is generally not a term used in Washington Parenting plans (except for naming one of the parents as a “custodian” for certain legal purposes, outside of the parenting plan). Instead, the parenting plan uses the terms “decision making” and “residential provisions” to indicate what is generally considered as custody in other states. These decision making/residential provisions can take the form of a traditional custody arrangement, such as when the children primarily reside with one of the parents. It can also take the form of a 50/50 split of residential placement – called joint physical custody in other states. Courts may approve these 50/50 arrangements, however, from legal and practical considerations, they are often conditioned on the parents sharing a history of mutual cooperation and accord with respect to parenting issues.
Decision making is generally broken down into two types: major decisions and day-to-day decisions. Day-to-day decisions, including decisions about safety and emergency health care, are usually made by the parent with whom the child is residing. Major types of decisions concerning the children, including issues involving educational, religious practices and health care, can be designated in the parenting plan for one or both parents. The right to make these major decisions can be given to one parent, usually the parent with who the child primarily resides, or they can be shared equally between the parents, which can often be the case. However, if there are good reasons why one parent’s decision-making powers should be limited, such as in cases involving substance abuse or domestic violence, or other issues that can impact a person’s ability to make parenting decisions, the courts may grant the decision-making power to just one parent.
Parenting time is a major part of a parenting plan. The residential provisions schedule sets the amount of time that a child will spend with each parent. This includes schedules for pre and school age children, summer schedules, holidays and vacations. It also handles how related issues are handled, including transportation and relocation matters. It can also set out rules for other issues, such as how the parents should communicate regarding their children and about information sharing between the parents.
Parenting plans also cover other important issues, such as how to resolve disputes regarding the parenting plan and whether to set any limitations on a parent (such as supervised visitations).
While parenting plans have a basic standard format, at the end of the day a parenting plan relating to your child should be unique to your situation and your child’s needs.
How and when will a parenting plan be filed?
Parenting plans can come in various types and be filed at different times during cases involving child custody.
Parenting plans can be filed as a proposal. A Parenting Plan proposal tells the other parent and the judge what you want and are filed before a decision has been made by the judge. This can happen at the beginning of the case, along with the petition or the response. They may also be filed while the case is ongoing, before a temporary motion, or before the trial.
Parenting plans can be filed as an order. This occurs when a judge signs a parenting plan order after making a decision at a temporary hearing or at trial. If the judge has already made a decision, you must fill out the parenting plan order to show the judge’s actual decision, even if it is different from what you asked for.
Parenting plans can be filed as part of an agreement. If you have come to an agreement with your spouse, you can fill out a parenting plan to show the agreement you made. If you both sign the proposal and order versions of the plan, the judge will most likely approve it, as long as it appears to the judge to be in the best interest of the child.
Once a parenting plan is filed and approved it has the status of an order and cannot be changed without going back to court. Therefore, make sure that you understand the terms of your parenting plan and what it means for your child. If you’re interested in learning more about how our firm can help you with your parenting plan, contact us today at (360) 605-1000.