Child Custody in Washington State
At the S.L. Pitts family law firm in Seattle, we know how important your children are to you. You may be concerned about what your post-divorce relationship with your children will be like. You may also have many, many questions about how custody works, such as where your children will live, and who gets to make decisions – both big and small – about them? Here are answers to some of your most urgent questions about child custody in Washington State.
Many family law litigants assume that each parent has an inherent equal “right” to time with their child and that the court should and must grant a 50/50 parenting plan. This assumption is incorrect. The court does not and will not evaluate custody determinations between parents through the analytical framework of “parental rights.”
The “Best Interest of the Child” Determines Custody
Instead, Washington State courts are required to make child custody determinations based on the best interest of the child. This standard may result in the court ordering a 50/50 parenting plan, but not necessarily.
The court is guided by two related concepts when determining child custody:
- preservation of the status quo, and
- determining who the primary parent is.
Washington Child Custody: the Primary Goal is to Preserve Stability for the Children
While divorce necessarily alters the status quo for a child, Washington State courts almost universally recognize that the best thing for a child whose parents are divorcing is to preserve as much stability for the child as they possibly can. Where feasible, the court will endeavor to keep minor children in the family home. The court will want the children to continue their current activities and will not want to separate siblings. All of this is aimed at preserving stability for the children.
To preserve stability, the court must determine who the primary parent is. The primary parent is the one who performs the bulk of parenting duties for the child. Depending on the age of the child, this can include a broad range of things: who usually does the bedtime routine, who arranges and takes the child to medical appointments and activities, who helps the child with homework, etc. While all parents contribute to some extent to parenting duties, in most cases, one parent performs the lion’s share of these functions. Because the court’s primary focus is on preserving stability for the children, the court will order a parenting plan that ensures that the children spend most residential time with their primary parent. This typically results in the non-primary parent having some version of an every-other-weekend visitation schedule.
There is a Broad Range of Possible Custody Arrangements
When attorneys and courts talk about residential schedules, we do so in terms of a two-week or 14-day cycle. A 50/50 parenting plan would be called a “7/7 plan”: seven days with one parent, seven days with the other parent. A “10/4 plan” would be ten days with one parent and four days with the other parent. Most non-primary parents have plans that range from 12/2 to 9/5 plans. In plain language, that means the non-primary parent has every other weekend, which can be anything from Friday after school to Sunday evening to Thursday after school to Tuesday morning return to school. It’s also common for the non-primary parent to have a mid-week visit on their off week, which could be anything from a dinner with the child to a mid-week overnight.
The exact plan will often depend on the age and developmental needs of a child. If a child is very young, then the court will be reluctant to separate them from their primary parent for more than one or two overnights. As a child gets older, the court will be more willing to grant larger blocks of time to the non-primary parent during the summer (when the primary parenting functions associated with school and activities are significantly reduced).
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to structuring parenting plans and, ideally, each one should be tailored to a family’s individual needs. Dr. Philip M. Stahl authored a very helpful parenting plan guide for the state of Arizona that does a good job of outlining some of the many residential schedules available and which ones are appropriate for the age and developmental needs of a child. Here is a link to his guide: https://www.azcourts.gov/portals/31/parentingTime/PPWguidelines.pdf
Absent a Special Circumstance, Courts Usually Order Joint Decision Making
In an emergency, each parent is given full authority to make decisions on behalf of the child. If your child has just been taken to the emergency room with a broken arm, you can authorize the physician to immediately provide medical care for your child without first obtaining the other parent’s consent.
However, most decisions are not emergencies. Which pediatrician to select, which sport to enroll the child in, whether the child should get a tattoo: all of these are non-emergency decisions that the court will typically expect the parents to make jointly.
However, where one parent has abused either the child or the other parent, the court will restrict the abusive parent’s ability to participate in major decisions.
Special Circumstances Affecting Child Custody in Washington State
In addition to the above considerations, there are several other factors that can have a significant impact on the court’s determination of child custody, some of which are discussed below.
If a parent has a drug or alcohol impairment, then it will likely result in restrictions on that parent’s time with the children. While the court will always strive to maintain a child’s relationship with both parents, a child’s safety necessarily takes top priority. Where there are credible concerns that a parent’s drug or alcohol use impairs their ability to safely care for the child, the court will likely require that parent to successfully complete drug or alcohol treatment before being granted a normalized visitation schedule with the child.
Similarly, if a parent abused the child, the court will likely restrict that parent’s custody until they can show that the child will be safe in their custody. A parent who has committed domestic violence toward the child will usually need to complete domestic violence treatment and several months of counseling prior to a normalized visitation schedule. In some instances, an abusive parent may have their visitation permanently restricted or even terminated.
In high-conflict cases, courts will often structure child custody plans to minimize contact between the parents. This might entail fewer exchanges in favor of longer visitations or using pick up and drop off at school as the exchange so that the parents rarely have to interact. In addition, because high-conflict parents are generally incapable of making decisions together, it is not uncommon in these cases to award sole decision-making rights to the primary parent.
The Child Custody Lawyers at S.L. Pitts Can Help to Protect Your Bond with Your Children
Our Seattle family lawyers have decades of experience helping parents to resolve their child custody disputes and to create customized parenting plans for their unique family situation. If you have questions about child custody in Washington State, including parenting plans and decision-making authority, contact the child custody attorneys at S.L. Pitts today. We will work hard to safeguard the all-important relationship between you and your children both during and after divorce.