When it comes to establishing a post-divorce parenting plan, there really is no “normal” or standard arrangement for custody and visitation. Parenting plans and visitation agreements should be drafted in the best interests of the child with the goal of reaching an arrangement where the child has a balanced relationship with both parents. That said, some people live in circumstances that are unusual when compared to most other people. As a result, they often face unique challenges that require special consideration when it comes to custody and visitation.
These situations often require expert guidance in order to reach a solution that is satisfactory for both parents and the child. Unfortunately, many parents assume that a “standard” custody arrangement will work well enough, only to discover its limitations soon after. Whether you are anticipating a divorce or need to modify an existing visitation schedule, the important thing to remember is that you and your child have rights no matter what your circumstances.
Serving in the military can present some of the most challenging situations when it comes to visitation. Servicemembers are regularly transferred to other duty stations that may be on the other side of the country or several states away. Service members can also be deployed overseas for several months at a time. And unlike civilians, military personnel do not have the option of declining their transfer or deployment.
While the courts essentially use the same standards in cases involving military parents as they do in civilian parents. However, there are some unique laws that you should be aware of:
- The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) is a Federal statute that offers various protections for active duty and deployed members of the military. These include allowing servicemembers to halt any court proceedings that they are not able to participate in due to their deployment.
- Washington State law prevents military status from being the sole basis for a permanent modification of an existing parenting plan.
Servicemembers should also be aware that the Washington State Attorney General’s Office has an Office of Legal Assistance specifically for members of the military.
Whether you or your co-parent are in the military, a transfer or deployment can significantly disrupt your current visitation arrangements. For these reasons, your parenting plan should definitely anticipate these issues if you or your spouse are service members. It will require some flexibility and creativity, and possibly some expert guidance. Here are some common solutions that military parents adopt in order to meet the challenges of a possible deployment:
- Assigning visitation to a close relative of the deployed parent. Washington law provides this specific right only to those who are in the military. While this may serve as little consolation to the deployed parent, it could be helpful for the child who may suffer from the sudden loss of contact. For the non-deployed parent, this arrangement can provide some much-needed relief. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, or others who are close to you may serve in this role.
- Scheduling make-up hours. Another option is to schedule additional visitation time either before or after the parent’s deployment.
- Virtual visitation. A developing option involves allowing deployed parents visitation time with their child via online platforms such as Skype or Zoom. The law on this point is still developing, and parents should be aware that it is intended as a supplement rather than a replacement to in-person visitation. However, it can be very helpful for a deployed parent, but be aware that they may be entitled to seek make-up visitation as well.
If your parenting plan did not anticipate deployment and you or the other parent have been deployed, you will most likely need to modify the agreement. In this case, you may ultimately have to file a motion with the court seeking to modify the visitation schedule. Again, military service alone may not be sufficient justification to modify the current parenting agreement. At the same time, failure to meet the visitation schedule due to military obligations cannot be held against the servicemember.
Long-Distance Parenting Plans
The modern trend in parenting plans is for parents to share residential custody of their children in an arrangement that is as close to equal as possible. This can be quite difficult for parents who are separated by a significant distance. Generally speaking, your options to achieve this balance will be largely determined by the distance between you and the co-parent.
For parents separated by significant distances, a common arrangement is for one parent to have “primary” custody during the school year. The other parent then has custody during the summer months and other vacations, and the parents negotiate the remaining holidays.
An alternative option that you may be able to consider, distance permitting, is monthly visitation such as every other weekend. This would allow regular contact with the parent who doesn’t have primary custody and allow for greater flexibility during holidays and school breaks. That said, after-school activities, sports, and other commitments can make this difficult even if the distance isn’t impossible.
It can be quite difficult to negotiate a long-distance visitation arrangement that is satisfactory to both parents. One reason is that the transportation costs can be significant, especially if it involves airfare. State law calls for such long distance transportation costs to be shared between the parents in the same proportion as the basic child support obligation. Alternatively, driving back and forth can require a great deal of time and gas. Important holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving can become quite contentious, and the parent who has secondary custody can often feel that they are getting less time than the other parent. All of these details will need to be decided as part of the visitation agreement. If you and the other parent cannot agree, it will be ultimately decided by the court, and possibly on terms you would not otherwise choose. If you are facing a potential long-distance visitation arrangement, you may want to consider a collaborative process or mediation.
How International Travel Factors into Visitation
For divorced parents, any travel out of Washington State requires special consideration. Generally speaking, parents may travel out of state with their child provided that they meet the following conditions:
- The trip does not violate the current parenting plan; and
- The other parent consents to the trip.
Parents should be aware that Washington courts will uphold travel restrictions in agreed-upon parenting agreements in certain situations. As a result, you should seek guidance from an attorney if the other parent is proposing a restriction against international travel.
International travel, of course, will require all travelers to have passports, including children. For children under the age of 16, both parents must consent to the issuance of the passport.
If one parent will not consent to the trip or to obtain a passport, the only option may be to litigate the matter in court, which can be expensive and time-consuming for both parties. As a result, seeking consent should never be left to the last minute. Instead, the other parent should be approached as soon as possible. Consent should be given in writing and kept by the traveling parent in a safe place. For passport applications, you should begin the application process as soon as the other parent consents to the trip so that your child will have their passport in time.
When a Child Refuses Visitation
While it doesn’t happen often, there are situations where a child may refuse to go with the other parent during their agreed-upon visitation. This can be a very difficult situation, as the parenting plan is a legally binding agreement on both parents – both parents have a right to visitation under the parenting plan and have legal remedies in the event that they are not honored.
When a child refuses visitation, the situation often becomes emotionally charged and antagonistic very quickly. Accusations of abuse or neglect are common, or one parent will accuse the other of poisoning their relationship with the child. Sadly, these situations are often the result of the child being manipulated by one parent in order to lash out at the other.
To address the situation, either parent can file a petition with the court – either to enforce the parenting plan as written or to modify it to reflect the child’s wishes. While parents have the right to make decisions for their children under the age of 18, the courts may consider the wishes of the child in determining an appropriate visitation arrangement. This is a somewhat delicate process – the court will not typically interview the child directly, but will do so through a court-appointed guardian. The child will not be asked to express a preference. Instead, the guardian will attempt to understand why the child is refusing visitation. The court will then base its decision based on the report prepared by the guardian. The child’s wishes may be honored if, for example, it appears that the parent is failing to provide a safe, stable environment for the child. On the other hand, the court may decline to change the parenting plan if it appears that the child was manipulated into refusing visitation.
Know That You Are Not Alone – All Visitation Arrangements are Unique
Visitation and custody often require expert guidance in order to reach a solution that is satisfactory for both parents and the child. Unfortunately, many parents assume that a “standard” custody arrangement will work well enough, only to discover its limitations soon after. Whether you are anticipating a divorce or need to modify an existing visitation schedule, the important thing to remember is that you and your child have rights no matter what your circumstances.