Can We Reach Our Own Agreements?

I am often asked whether a couple can reach their own agreements, or whether a Washington State court is going to refuse the accept those agreements and substitute its own decisions. As a general rule, a couple is able to make their own agreements as to things that are just between them. I have never seen a court interfere with an agreement between two divorcing parties about how to split their property or about spousal support (or lack of spousal support), assuming of course that both parties are competent and appear to understand what they are doing.

However, the court may look over your shoulder at agreements related to your children. Since children do not generally have any independent voice or representation in the divorce, the court often takes upon itself the responsibility to make sure the children’s best interests are being served.

For instance, when you present your agreed parenting plan, the court will run a background check on both parents. If it finds that a parent has a record of child abuse, but is being given unrestricted time with the children, it may question whether the children need protections written into the parenting plan. I once had an agreed parenting plan rejected by the court because the parenting plan said the children could make their own decisions about what time to spend with each parent. While the parents where trying to create an open relationship for their family, the court felt that it put too much burden on the children’s shoulders to make loyalty choices between the parents, and that doing so could be harmful to the children.

Likewise, the court looks at child support orders to make sure that the children are not short changed. The legislature has created a specific method for calculating child support. The courts have the ability to deviate from the calculation result, but need to be convinced that the children will not be negatively impacted by the deviation. It is not enough to simply say “this is the amount of child support we have agreed is fair”. If you are requesting a deviation from the standard calculation, you need to justify that deviation. This might be showing that the other parent is taking on other financial responsibilities for the child – maybe paying for private school, or covering health insurance. It might be showing that one household has unusual involuntary expenses. There is a list in the child support laws that lays out a number of potential deviation factors for courts to consider, so that list is a good place to start.