Parenting Plan/Residential Schedule/Child Custody
In Washington State, parents have the responsibility to make decisions and perform parenting functions for the care and growth of their minor children. In dissolution cases (or paternity cases if the parents are not married), parties with minor children will have to have a parenting plan or residential schedule.
At the beginning of a divorce case or a petition for a residential schedule most parents want a temporary parenting plan or residential schedule entered that remains in effect until the entry of a final order.
When a temporary parenting plan or residential schedule is entered, the court will enter a plan that is in the best interest of the child and will look in particular to which parent has taken the greater responsibility during the last 12 months performing parenting functions, and which parenting arrangement will cause the least destruction to the child’s emotional stability while the action is pending.
The objective of the permanent parenting plan or residential schedule is to
- provide for the child’s physical care
- maintain the child’s emotional stability
- provide for the child’s changing needs as the child grows and matures
- set forth the authority and responsibility of each parent with respect to the child
- minimize the child’s exposure to harmful conflict
- encourage the parents to meet their responsibility to the minor children through agreement in the parenting plan rather than relying upon the court, and
- to protect the best interest of the child
Components of a Parenting Plan or Residential Schedule
Parenting plans have several major components.
First, is the residential schedule/parenting time schedule. This sets forth, in detail, what time the child spends with each parent. The primary residential parent is the parent where the child resides the majority of the time. The non-residential parent may have the children alternate weekends (for example Friday to Sunday, or Friday to Monday) and may also have residential time during the week. The residential schedule/parenting time schedule also addresses major holidays, birthdays, school breaks, and summer vacation. There is no “typical schedule” in a parenting plan or residential schedule. It will vary for each case depending upon the age of the children, the location of the parents’ residences, the parents’ work schedules, and other factors.
The second component of the parenting plan is the decision making process. Parents can have joint decision making where they both discuss issues in the parenting plan or residential schedule such as education decisions, non-emergency health care, and other decisions affecting the parenting plan.
In some cases, there is sole decision making given to one of the parents only. This happens if the parents have a difficult time making joint decisions or there are restrictions on one of the parents. Restrictions may be imposed on a parent’s residential time or on the decision-making process for various reasons, including domestic violence; physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; willful abandonment; neglect or substantial non-performance of parenting functions; or a long-term impairment from drugs or alcohol.
The third component is dispute resolution. If the parents have a conflict surrounding the parenting plan, it is more efficient to try and resolve the conflict without resorting to a court proceeding. The parents can agree to use a mediator or other dispute resolution procedure to resolve conflicts concerning the parenting plan.
The fourth component is relocation. In Washington State there is a relocation statute (RCW 26.09.400) that sets forth procedures for parents to follow in the event the primary residential parent relocates. A summary of the statute is set forth in every parenting plan or residential schedule.
The fifth component is of the parenting plan is for additional provisions such as: mutual agreement that neither parents will make derogatory comments about the other parent in front of the children, mutual agreement that the parents will not smoke or allow third-parties to smoke in front of the children, and mutual agreement that the parents will not discuss changing the residential schedule with the children.
What if we cannot agree on the Parenting Plan or Residential Schedule?
Many times parents agree to a permanent parenting plan or residential schedule. However, if the parties cannot agree it is not unusual for the court to appoint a parenting evaluator or a Guardian ad Litem to do an investigation and make recommendations for a parenting plan or residential schedule. A parenting evaluator will meet with the parties and appropriate individuals (i.e. relatives, friends, teachers, etc.) who may have information on the parents’ parenting skills. A Guardian ad Litem is an individual that represents the children’s best interest, and may be an attorney or mental health practitioner.
Parenting evaluations may be done privately or (if the case is in King County) through Family Court Services. Family Court Services will charge a sliding fee depending upon the income of the parties.
For more information on parenting plans, parents can look at Chapter 26.09 RCW.
Can my children decide who they want to live with?
Children do not have the legal right to decide with parent they will live with or whether or not they visit a parent or for how long. Children will also never testify in court. Instead, the children’s desires may be presented through a parenting evaluator or Guardian ad Litem’s in his/her report to the court.
What if I want to change my Parenting Plan or Residential Schedule?
It is important that you seek the advice from an experience attorney when pursuing a permanent Parenting Plan or Residential Schedule because once a final parenting plan is approved by the court, it is not easy to change.
Parents can change the parenting plan if they mutually agree. In the absence of mutual agreement, there must be a significant change in circumstances to justify modifying the parenting plan or residential schedule. In that case a Petition to Modify a Parenting Plan/Residential Schedule will have to be filed.