How to Modify Child Custody in Washington State

When divorcing or separating parents sit down to negotiate their parenting plan, they often do not know what the future may bring. One or both spouses may remarry, and there may be career changes or relocations. The children will grow, get involved in activities, and establish friendships and other relationships. The parenting plan that made sense when it was drafted may become unworkable. If you have found yourself in a similar situation, you may be able to modify your child custody order. An experienced child custody attorney can discuss your options with you and walk you through the process. 

Yes, There Will Be Paperwork

As with anything involving divorce and child custody, you will have to file some legal documents with the court. The first thing you need to figure out is where to file the documents. Generally speaking, you will file your paperwork in one of three places: 

  1. With the court that entered the original parenting plan or custody order; 
  2. With the court in the county where the child lives; or
  3. With the court in the county where the parent with primary custody lives.

The situation becomes more complicated if the custody order was entered in a court outside of Washington state or if one of the parents resides in another state or country. 

The primary initial form you will need to file with the court to start a modification action is called a “Petition to Change a Parenting Plan, Residential Schedule, or Custody Order” but there are other forms you will also need to complete and file. The information you need to provide in this form is fairly basic, and there are various boxes for you to check off with sections for brief explanations. However, it is vital that the information you provide is both complete and accurate as it will affect the outcome of your case. 

If you and the other parent do not agree on the modification, then your petition will need tobe served on the other parent. The process may appear relatively straightforward, but a minor mistake can create challenges later on that cost you both time and money. A child custody attorney can help you navigate the process in order to ensure that your modification goes smoothly.

Do You Need a Minor or a Major Modification? 

One of the most important factors in your case will be whether or not you need a minor or a major modification to your parenting plan or custody order. Major and minor modifications are judged according to very different standards under the law. In fact, obtaining a major modification to an existing custody order or parenting plan is one of the more challenging actions to take.  

Under the law, major and minor modifications are differentiated by very specific criteria. As a result, what may seem like a major modification to you may be deemed a minor modification by the court and vice versa. It is therefore important to understand the difference between a major and minor modification. 

A major modification is one that changes who is the primary parent or increases the non-primary parent’s time by 24 full days per year or more. The proposed modification must be necessary to serve the best interests of the child. To be successful, a petition for a major modification must be based on a change of circumstances that affects the child or the non-moving parent. In addition, the petition will be granted only if it falls within one of the following situations: 

  • Both parents have agreed to the modification, either formally or informally; or 
  • The current custody arrangement posed a threat to the physical, mental, or emotional health of the child; or
  • The non-moving parent has been found in contempt of court at least twice within the last three years with regard to the existing custody arrangement.   

A minor modification, on the other hand, is one that does not change custody by 24 days or change who the primary parent is. Here are some examples where a petition for a minor modification would be appropriate: 

  • The non-primary parent has moved, and the current custody arrangement has become impractical. For example, parents may no longer be able to share custody during the week if one parent no longer lives within driving distance of the child’s school. 
  • The current custody arrangement is no longer workable due to an involuntary schedule change in a parent’s work schedule. For example, if one parent must now work night shifts once per month, they may be unable to supervise the child while they are in the home or perform their parental duties during daylight hours. 

Will I Have to Go to Court? 

If you and your co-parent agree on the modification, formal court hearings can likely be avoided.  If, however, the request to modify the parenting plan is not agreed, then you will berequired to attend at least one hearing in court. The first hearing is referred to as an “adequate cause” hearing that will determine whether the petitioning party has a legitimate basis for seeking the modification. If the court finds that they do not have adequate cause, the petition will be dismissed, and that will be the end of the process. If the court does find that the petitioning parent has adequate cause, the case will then proceed to trial on the merits of the claim.  This two-step process is intended to prevent baseless requests for modifications that may be used to harass the other party. 

Work with a Child Custody Lawyer Who Can Help You Get a Fair Outcome

Reaching the right custody arrangement is critical for your child’s well-being. Whether you or your co-parent is considering a modification, we can help you understand your rights and obligations so that you can do what is best for your child with minimal stress and anxiety. To discuss your case and how we can help, call us today at 206-784-3049 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.