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Parenting Plans 101

The toughest part of a divorce, legal separation, or paternity case is usually the effect it has on children. Washington law tries to help parents work out a plan for raising their children with a focus on the children’s best interest. The intent is to eliminate the concepts of "custody" and "visitation," and instead provide a residential schedule - called a Parenting Plan - that specifically details the time that the children will reside with each parent. It addresses needs of children, and defines how to best meet those needs on a day-to-day basis of "who does what," rather than "who has custody." Done right, a Parenting Plan will help resolve and remove future conflict in raising the children.

Anyone finalizing a divorce or legal separation will be required to have a final written Parenting Plan, even if all the terms of the divorce or legal separation are completely agreed by the parties. For unmarried couples, a Parenting Plan may or may not be required, depending on the specific circumstance. The Parenting Plan must be approved by the court, and is either worked out by the parents or ordered by the court if the parents can’t agree. It is a formal legal document, and is on a form provided by the Washington State - as are all forms in a divorce or legal separation.

The Parenting Plan has several parts. The residential provisions address schedules for pre-school, the school year, holidays and vacation and lay out the contact that each parent will have with the children. Decision-making functions section gives guidance on which parent or if both parents jointly will make major decisions about concerns such as education, health care or religious upbringing. Dispute resolution procedures in case of trouble or disagreements down the road are also addressed, and there is also a limitations section which may be used to restrict contact by an abusive parent who could harm a child.. Guidelines for details like transportation arrangements, birthdays, and sports activities are covered. Special considerations or agreements that are specific to the family are also addressed as needed. Child support and financial arrangements are generally addressed in a separate child support order.

While Washington law recognizes it is important for the children to have a relationship with both parents after the marriage ends, it tries to preserve the parent-child interactions and relationships that exist at the time of the dissolution or separation through the Parenting Plan. This is not always possible or desirable, especially if one parent is moving away, or if the conduct of one parent is not in the best interest of the child.

While there is no age in Washington when a child will have final say in where he or she wants to live, the wishes of the children - if they are old enough to rationally express those wishes - are take into consideration, as are relationships with siblings and other adults, such as grandparents or other family members.

During the divorce or legal separation process, a temporary Parenting Plan may be adopted by the court while the parents try to reach agreement on the issues in the case or are waiting for trial if an agreement can’t be reached. It only operates until a final Parenting Plan is entered. The temporary Parenting Plan is arrived at by an agreement of the parents, or ordered by the court if an agreement can’t be reached. Factors in arriving at a temporary Parenting Plan include: where and with whom the children have lived for the past 12 months, the role of each parent in taking care of the daily needs of the children for the past 12 months, the parents’ work and child-care schedules both now and for the past 12 months, and any other circumstance that might negatively impact the children if the children live with or visit the other parent. Generally, the same form is used for both temporary and permanent Parenting Plans.

If an agreement as to the residential schedule can’t be reached, or if one or both parents have engaged in conduct that may be harmful to the children, a Guardian ad Litem may be appointed to investigate and issue a recommendation for residential placement and/or limiting parent contact. A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a neutral, third-party professional who talks to both parents, the children (if they are old enough), and other people who have significant information regarding the children and the parents. The GAL then makes a report to the court, which is used by the court in determining the final Parenting Plan.

Finally, The law also specifically states that even if one parent violates the plan, the other parent must continue to perform his or her duties. The dispute must be resolved through appropriate legal action, not some retaliatory measure taken by one of the parents. For example, one parent can’t restrict the other parent's rights under the Parenting Plan because child-support payments are late. If you are in a divorce, legal separation, paternity, or other legal matter regarding children, please contact us to discuss your options and legal rights.

Caleb Morgan