What is a Parenting Plan and How Can I Get One?

A "Parenting Plan" is the current legal term for a court order controlling the physical custody and parental decision making as to a child whose parents do not live together.  The same rules apply to the creation, modification and enforcement of  Parenting Plans regardless of whether the parents have been married.

The diversity of children’s circumstances in our society is immense.  Acoordingly the legal system dealing with children's custody requires a good deal of flexibility.  RCW.26.09.003.  Washington law strongly favors parental arrangements, as to both residential schedule and decision making aspects,  that  are decided upon by the parents rather than the court.  For instance, unless domestic violence is an issue, King County Superior Court Local Family Law Rule 16(a) requires parents to attempt to create their own "Parenting Plan" through mediation before they can proceed to trial. Most counties have similar local court rules.  Mediation is successful in the majority of cases.  When the parents reach agreement on a child's residential schedule and other needs, the agreement must be expressed in a state-mandated form (See Parenting Plan form on forms tab above) for the purpose.  The Plan must then be submitted to a judicial officer who approves a Plan by signing it, after which it is permanently filed with the court clerk and thus becomes an enforceable court order the same as Parenting Plan issued by a custody trial court.

Why would I have to go through a "custody trial"?

Custody trials are required only if the parents are unable to agree on a Plan themselves and one or both parents petition(s) the court to resolve the dispute by judicial creation of a Parenting Plan.  Some trial involve both parents wanting custody ("primary residential parent") without allegations of unfitness of the other parent, but most trials result from a parent alleging that some restriction on the other parent's contact with the child is necessary for the child's safety and welfare.RCW 26.09.191 and 26.09.187.

Does Washington have "joint custody"?

"Joint custody" is not a term used in Washington child custody law.  Washington Parenting Plan law and mandatory use forms (see tab above) require that a child's complete future residential schedule until the child reaches 18, including school holidays and other special occasions be allocated betwen the parents.  The residential schedule must be crafted in such a way as to encourage a continued bond between both parents with the child.  RCW 26.09.002.  The Plan must also allocate decision-making authority between the parents.  Joint decision-making is favored over sole decision-making. Sole decision-making is ordered only if the court determines that it is in the child's best interests due to a history of domestic violence by a parent, or other limiting factor.  RCW 26.09.191.  When joint decision making is ordered, the Plan must state what means, including non-judicial means such as mediation, are to be used by the parents to help them resolve future disputes concerning the implementation of the Plan. 





Washington allows "Permanent" Parenting Plans to be modified, drastically or in a minor way under specified circumstances only.  RCW 26.09.260,  Modification law attempts to balance conflicting child welfare goals:  on the one hand, child custody litigation is generally emotionally and financially difficult for all involved and when a Plan is finally created, by agreement or by trial, the legislative intent is that it be allowed to stand until the child reaches the age of majority (18 yrs. per  RCW 26.28.010).  This protects the child and both parents from the turmoil of serial custody litigation.  On the other hand, treating a Permanent Parenting Plan as absolutely unchangeable would result in some children becoming vulnerable to worse harm than another custodial litigation.   Washington law has chosen to balance these conflicting objectives by requiring all parents who seek to change an existing Permanent Parenting Plan to demonstrate that their Petition has legal merit.   RCW 26.09.260.  This is done by requiring a preliminary hearing commonly referred to as a “threshold” or “adequate case” hearing.  The purpose of such hearings is to ferret out potential custody cases that  have legal merit from those that do not.  If  the "adequate cause" judicial hearing officer is not persuaded that the petitioning parent has met the preliminary showing of need for modification to proceed, the case is summarily dismissed.  RCW 26.09.260. 

What do I have to prove at an “adequate cause” hearing? 

A parent seeking to modify an existing Parenting Plan such that the child’s primary residence will be changed to the petitioning parent's ("major modification") must prove that the child’s current Plan is so detrimental to the child that the legally presumed harm of modifying that Plan is overcome by how much better off the child would be under the proposed Plan.  RCW 26.09.260. See "forms" tab above for the mandatory modification petition form.  In other words, before being allowed to proceed to trial, a modification petitioner must establish not only that the child would likely do well with the petitioner, but also that the requested change is necessary because of the significant possibility of harm to the child if the current Plan is not changed.

What are the grounds for modification of a Parenting Plan? 

RCW 26.09.260 controls the legal basis for Plan modification.  In addition to the harm/benefit analysis discussed above, a child’s residential schedule may be modified because the parents have in practice, not followed a Plan and the child has consequently become accustomed to the actual residential schedule the parents have followed.  This is referred to as  “integration” of the child into the petitioner’s household (RCW 26.09.260).  The Plan may also be changed by parental agreement and on the other bases stated in RCW 26.09.260.

What is the difference between a major and a minor modification? 

“Major” and “minor” residential schedule modifications are delineated by RCW 26.09.260 according to the number of days the proposed change would make to the child’s current residential schedule.  Parents have less difficulty proving the need for  “minor” modification than a "major" modification that would result in a change of the child's primary care-giver and residence.  RCW.26.09.260.

“Minor” modifications can also be obtained to change non-residential provisions of a Plan including the Plan's parental decision-making procedure.  RCW 26.09.260.

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Seattle Family Law handles divorce and family law for people in the Seattle and Puget Sound areas of Washington State, including Bellevue, Renton, Kent, Tacoma, Everett, Edmonds, Kirkland, Federal Way, Issaquah, Lynwood, Shoreline, Auburn and other communities in King County, Snohomish County, and Pierce County.