Custody and Parenting

In Washington State the terms “custody” and “joint custody” really do not mean anything. Rather than awarding custody, the court makes parenting plans which define the roles of both parents.

In order to avoid disrupting the children during the school week, most typically the court will have the children reside with one parent during the week and then divide most of the weekends, holidays, and school breaks between the parents, with several weeks to each parent during the summer for vacation. 50/50 residential schedules are rare unless both parents agree that is what they want to do.

Unless there is a good reason not to, the parents will have joint decision making authority on major issues like educational and medical decisions. The court may limit a parent’s visitation if the parent has committed domestic violence, child abuse, or suffers from significant alcohol or drug problems.

Parents often ask at what age the children can decide which parent they are going to live with. While the court may consider the wishes of the children as one factor in the court’s decision, children under 18 do not have the legal right to decide where they will reside or how much time they will spend with each parent.

Children are not generally allowed to testify or submit declarations about parenting issues, but may be heard indirectly through a guardian ad litem or parenting evaluator. Guardians ad litem and parenting evaluators are persons appointed by the court to investigate the circumstances and make recommendations to the court as to what parenting arrangements would be in the children’s best interests.

A parenting plan defines the roles of each parent. This includes a residential schedule, decision making provisions, and any needed restrictions on either parent.

In order to avoid disrupting the children during the school week, most typically the court will have the children reside with one parent during the week and then divide most of the weekends, holidays, and school breaks between the parents, with several weeks to each parent during the summer for vacation.

Unless there is a good reason not to, the parents will have joint decision making authority on major issues like educational and medical decisions. The court may limit a parent’s visitation if the parent has committed domestic violence, child abuse, or suffers from significant alcohol or drug problems.

Mediation may be required to resolve issues that may arise in following the parenting plan.

The parent that the children do not reside with the majority of the time is often referred to as having visitation time with the children, even though more correctly that parent simply has a lesser amount of residential time.

Typically this may amount to every other weekend, maybe a midweek evening, half of the holidays and school breaks, and several weeks in the summer.

This time may be limited, however, if a parent has a history of problems with domestic violence or substance abuse. In the most severe situations the court may require that the parent’s time with the children be supervised.

If the parents live in different parts of the country, visitation time may have to be limited to school breaks and the summer.

If a parent violates a parenting plan they may be held in contempt of court. This requires obtaining an order to show cause, which requires the parent to appear in court to explain why they should not be held in contempt. Repeated violations may justify a modification of the parenting plan to impose restrictions on the violating parent.

Obtaining the return of children who are being wrongfully kept by a parent may involve obtaining a writ from a local court which authorizes police intervention.

If there is a dispute about the meaning of a provision in the parenting plan, the parties can mediate the dispute, or may want to bring a motion to have the court clarify the provision.

Washington State law requires that before a parent can move the primary residence of the children, the other parent must be notified and given the opportunity to object.

There are special forms that should be used for the notification and objection. There is a legal presumption that the move will be allowed unless the objecting parent can show that the move would be detrimental to the children. In most cases the real issue will not be whether the move will be allowed but how the parenting plan should be adjusted to accommodate the distance between the parents.

If a parent moves out of the area without giving the required notice, they may be required to move back until the move can be properly addressed by the court. The parent could also be held in contempt of court if they move without proper notice and the move deprives the other parent of their scheduled time with the children.

Modification of a parenting plan generally requires a substantial change of circumstances justifying the modification.

A major modification that substantially changes the amount of time the child spends with each parent also requires showing either that the parents have agreed to the change, the child has been integrated into the other parent’s family with the consent of the first parent, or that the current environment is detrimental to the child.

After filing a petition for modification, a threshold hearing must be held at which the court determines whether there is sufficient evidence to allow the matter to proceed to trial. If the court finds that the standards have not been met, the case will be dismissed. Attorneys fees may be awarded if the court finds that the modification was filed in bad faith.

Third party custody refers to the situation where someone other than the two parents is asking the court to place the child in their care. This is typically another relative such as a grandparent, uncle or aunt of the child, who is agreeing to care for the child because neither parent is able to do so.

Filing a third party custody action requires filing a Petition with the court, alleging either that the child is not currently in the care of the parents or that the parents are unfit to continue to care for the child.