As a divorcing parent, what do you need to know about custody law in Washington State? The Parenting Act of 1987 and the Parenting Plan it requires are the centerpieces of Washington State custody law.

The Parenting Act of 1987 was designed to put the child's best interests first in a custody case. The Parenting Act made Parenting Plans a mandatory part of legal separation, annulment, or dissolution of any marriage where minor children are involved. The parenting plan can be worked out informally between the parents or determined by a judge, but the document must pass court approval.

What is a Parenting Plan?

Divorced couple who need a parenting planDuring your Washington State child custody case, you may be surprised to find that your attorneys and the courts aren’t using the words that you associate with these cases, such as “sole custody” and “joint custody.” Instead, you will likely hear the words, “parenting plan.”

In Washington, a parenting plan is a legal document that outlines where a child spends his or her time, who will make decisions for the child, and how parenting conflicts will be resolved. It’s common for a temporary parenting plan to be put into place during a divorce or separation, and a more final parenting plan to be drawn up after the divorce.

All parenting plans do what is in the best interest of the children, and most parenting plans recognize that what is in the best interest of the children is to have an ongoing relationship with both parents, even if they may spend more time with one or the other. A parent’s time or decision-making capabilities may be limited if they have a history of domestic violence or abuse, if they struggle with substance abuse, or if they have demonstrated a lack of ability to parent.

Parenting plans go beyond the idea of joint custody and sole custody and instead focus on the fact that all families are different, and co-parenting solutions after divorce should be as diverse as these families.

A Parenting Plan is a legal document that outlines a detailed custody plan for a child or children until they reach the age of 18. In more detail, parenting plans address several custody issues, including:

Legal Custody: The Authority to Make Decisions

This section determines who has the authority to make decisions about the religious and cultural instruction, education, and health care of the child(ren). One parent may be given full authority, the parents may divide the responsibility between them, or the agreement may state that both parents together must make these decisions.

Physical Custody, or the Residential Schedule

Plans for living arrangements must take in to account school schedules, transportation, length of stays or parent visits. The law requires that these arrangements be laid out clearly and specifically in the parenting plan.

Dispute Resolution

Parents must commit to a procedure to deal with any disputes that arise in the future. Parents decide on a conflict-resolution strategy and may name a person or agency that will be called upon if disputes arise.

Relocation and Revising a Parenting Plan

The law states that any change in a parenting plan must be in the best interests of the child, and that revisions should only be made when there has been a major change in the life of a child or a parent that requires the revision.

The most common reason to revisit a parenting plan is relocation of a parent. If one parent plans to move any significant distance, this change of location can disrupt the child(ren)'s residential schedule and limit one parent's ability to make informed decisions as laid out in a parenting plan.

A parent must have strong and convincing reasons for relocation. These reasons may include work when the parent has no reasonable employment option if they do not relocate. Family, support systems, and the need to care for an aging parent may be other sufficient factors, but on the whole, the law emphasizes that the child's need for stability trumps the parent's desire to relocate.

Child custody arrangement consultation

Clearly, relocation-or any other revision of a parenting plan-is a difficult legal issue. Parents would be wise to consult an experienced attorney where an existing parenting plan is in question.

Related: Read Common Child Custody Agreements and Common Child Visitation Schedules

Molly B. Kenny
Connect with me
Divorce and Child Custody Attorney Serving Bellevue and Seattle Washington