In Washington, custody decisions are ordered by a court in a "parenting plan." Washington state does not actually use the term "custody." Parenting plans are entered in any matters involving children when married or unmarried parents end their relationship.
A parenting plan is a legal document setting forth basic arrangements for the children. These include which parent the children will live with, and how much time children will spend with each parent. The parenting plan determines which parent makes major life decisions for the children, such as health care, education, and religion. It also states how parents will settle major disagreements. Without a court ordered parenting plan, both parents have equal rights and responsibilities to a child.
Many parents agree on parenting arrangements, and ask the court to approve their agreed parenting plan. If parents disagree on parenting arrangements, the court will make the decision. The court usually appoints a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) or parenting evaluator assist the court in reaching a decision in contested cases. The court's overarching standard in ordering a parenting plan is the best interest of the child.
Once a parenting plan is entered with the court and signed by a judge, both parents are expected to follow it unless they agree to modifications. While new situations may require new arrangements, the final parenting plan is intended to last until the children are legally adults. It is very difficult to request that the court change a final parenting plan unless these changes are mutually agreed to by both parents. The standard to modify a parenting plan is more demanding than the best interest of the child. Courts will only change custody if a major change happens in the child's life or the other parent's life. These changes must not have been "foreseeable" at the time of the original parenting plan.
One reason a parenting plan is changed is if a parent is moving, or relocating, with the children. Relocation cases are often litigated in court because allowing the child to relocate results in the drastic loss of parenting time. The parent who wants to move must give written notice before moving. The notice then allows the other parent to object to the move and ask the court to change the parenting plan.
WHAT I CAN DO.
Handling a child custody situation properly is critical because it has long-term consequences for your children. Just as every child is unique, there is no standard parenting plan suitable for every family. The point is to create a plan that works for your particular situation. While it is best for parties to come to a sustainable agreed parenting plan, sometimes this is simply not possible.
I have a wealth of experience representing both mothers and fathers in contested and mediated parenting disputes. I work carefully with my clients to develop a child-focused parenting plan, considering the child's current and future developmental needs, and parent's challenges, such as an abusive use of conflict, domestic violence, or drug abuse. I work tirelessly to think through the possibilities, and to ensure that the final parenting plan reflects what is best for your children.