What is a parenting plan? Do you need one?
When parents split up it becomes necessary to decide how much time the kids spend with Mom, how much time with Dad, where they go for breaks and holidays, who handles pick up after school, and a host of other decisions. A parenting plan is where these decisions are memorialized. There is no statutory answer or “right” way to do things. More than ever, equal time parenting plans or non-traditional parenting plans are agreed upon as people seek schedules that fit their lives and changing family dynamics. If you are thinking about a divorce or separating from a partner to whom you are not married, a parenting plan will be an important part of the process and the facts and circumstances of your family situation matter in creating your own plan.
Any Washington divorce with children has a parenting plan as a necessary component. Parenting plans are what some other states call “custody orders.” Parenting plans determine what the residential schedule/parenting time will look like for children once a divorce is finalized, or in a temporary parenting plan, while a divorce is going on. It will set out where children will spend holidays, summer breaks, school vacations, special occasions, and will also dictate how parents will share decision-making, and other special provisions. Even though one parent may be called the “custodian” in a parenting plan, this does not change the parenting rights and responsibilities described in the plan or that both parents are still legal parents. Parents can also often be deemed joint or co-custodians in the case of 50/50 parenting plans. Washington law generally refers to parenting time and decision-making, rather than “custody.”
You may be wondering if you have children with a partner but are not married when are you also need a parenting plan. The answer is, yes. If you have been living with a partner and your children and that relationship is ending, you also should be establishing a parenting plan. The parenting plan will do the same thing that it would do with divorcing parents: It will establish a new normal for the children, help you and your former partner have a schedule for parenting time, holidays, decision-making, and other provisions. It is also
important to know that parties can always make agreements and deviate from parenting plans. Parenting plans are a baseline and something that establishes a court order the parties need to follow when people do not agree or get along.
You may be wondering about changing a parenting plan you already have. Can you do that? The answer is yes, but it's important to note that doing so can only be done under certain circumstances. Once a parenting plan is entered with the court and finalized, the court does not want to see the plan changed often or easily because it has established stability and consistency for the children involved. Parenting plans can only be changed upon the showing of what is known as a substantial change in circumstances, which are specific factors that must be established to meet the threshold of adequate cause that is needed to move forward in speaking to modify the parenting plan. If you have a parenting plan and are seeking to change it, the best thing you can do is sit down with an attorney to go over your situation and establish whether you can meet the burden necessary to cross the threshold and move forward with a modification.
Parenting plans are typically the most important and unfortunately sometimes the most contentious piece of a divorce with children. Finding a way to resolve parenting plan issues through negotiation, mediation, and other means side from litigation can bring resolution in ways that are far more healing, cost-effective, and easier to move on from than litigation and trial. In some instances, disputes including parenting plans need to be litigated and taken to trial. Every case is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Whether you are seeking to establish or change a parenting plan, getting the most information possible and a thorough analysis of your situation is the best thing you can do as early on in the process.