During a divorce, I often see couples agree on how to divide the house, the cars, and the retirement funds, but get stuck on one issue. They don’t know how to share time with their children, so can’t agree on a parenting plan.
What is a parenting plan in Washington? A parenting plan outlines each parent’s responsibilities after the divorce. The major focus of the plan is to set the times a parent will be with the children, but it covers much more. Other topics include: decision-making authority, transportation and exchange schedules, and dispute resolution plans.
This article covers Washington State parenting plans and what parents need to know in order to complete one. Refer to our sample plan and follow along.
- Which children are included?
- Should I place limitations on a parent?
- Decision making authority, which parent should decide?
- How should we resolve disputes in the future?
- 4 common parenting plans: What a weekly schedule could look like
- How can we give each parent enough quality time?
Step 1: List the children
Section 2 asks you to list the children covered by the parenting plan. Include all children under 18 years old. Do not include children from a previous relationship; say a prior marriage, since they would be covered in a parenting plan between their biological parents.
Exception: In some cases a family will have a special needs child that is adult age. If both parents will continue to support the child you can include them here.
Step 2: Provide any parenting limitations
Sections 3 and 4 cover any limitations that should be in place. Limitations can be placed on a parent for problems like domestic violence, neglect, or drugs and alcohol. The severity of limitations varies from no contact with the children to limited or supervised contact.
In an agreed divorce, typically there aren’t issues that need to be flagged. If this is the case, select the boxes “Neither parent has any of these problems” in Section 3. “Does not apply” should be checked in Section 4.
In some cases a parent may agree to sign the divorce papers, but only if a spouse omits a problem and any limitations. There is no requirement to include a limitation, so make the decision based on your best judgment. Agreeing to not include a parenting issue will make the divorce process go smoother. At the same time, if the parenting plan is ever modified, it will be difficult to bring up a parent’s history with say substance abuse, if it is not referenced in the original plan.
If you do think limitations should be placed on a parent, below is a list of reasons a court would consider. Most of these reasons apply to someone living in the parent’s home too.
- Child abuse
- Domestic violence
- Sex offense
- Emotional of physical problems
- Substance abuse
- Lack of emotional ties
- Abusive use of Conflict
- Withholding the child from the other parent for a long time without good reason
If any of the above issues are marked a parent will need to decide, which limitations should be placed in Section 4. Aside from limiting time with the children, a parent can request that a supervisor be present when the other parent spends time with the children. The supervisor can be a friend, family member, or a hired professional.
Sometimes a supervisor is needed because of a substance abuse issue. Parents can agree to waive the supervision requirement if the other parent completes a treatment program or is cleared by a physician. This gives the parent who is fighting substance abuse a goal to get sober and a safeguard for the children in the interim.
Step 3: Decision Making Authority
Section 5 of the Washington parenting plan prompts you to specify which parent will make major decisions. Decision categories include topics like health care and education. You’ll also be able to include topics important to you.
First, plan ahead and identify issues where you think joint decision-making would prevent a disagreement in the future. The court issued plan only lists education and health care, but don’t stop there. Major decisions for many parents include military entry, summer camps, orthodontia, and tattoos and body piercings.
Also, each major decision doesn’t need to be a joint decision. Consider dividing these responsibilities based on which parent decided before the divorce. While it’s easy to agree on 50/50 shared responsibility, a split may not take advantage of each parent’s expertise.
For instance, if your wife-managed doctor visits and has a relationship with the children’s pediatrician, it makes sense for her to handle healthcare. Conversely, if you chose the elementary school and interviewed the faculty, it makes sense for you to manage education. Every parent has strengths. Try to maximize those after the separation.
It’s also important to be creative if there is something holding up the agreement. Decision-making is not all or nothing. Many times it is best to add exceptions. Here’s a scenario.
You’re comfortable with your wife making major healthcare decisions, but you want to be positive the children receive vaccinations. The solution, reserve the issue of vaccinations. Language can be added to the parenting plan, which identifies a specific topic as a shared decision. In this example, you would add a clause designating the decision to vaccinate as shared, while granting the remaining health care decisions to your wife.
Step 4: Determine a dispute resolution process
Section 6 contains a key ingredient for plans built to last. It allows you to designate a tiebreaker. Visitation is the most contested issue in parenting plans, so expect to need some outside help at least once.
You may ask for a modification because the requirements of a new job just don’t fit with the old schedule. Maybe soccer practices are eating up the majority of your visitation hours. Regardless, if you plan ahead you won’t end up deciding in court.
You can avoid the courtroom if you pick a dispute resolution fallback. Select a mediator, counselor, or arbitrator. Look online, ask friends, or stop by a couple offices to choose a decision maker that you both can trust. Identifying the tiebreaker in advance will take pressure off the family if an issue does arise.
Step 5: Build a parenting schedule
In Sections 8 through 11 you’ll outline the details of the schedule. You are able to customize the parenting plan for children in and out of school, as well as create a summer specific schedule (great for parents who are teachers). You can also designate, vacation time and plans for each holiday. There are endless ways to tailor your weekly schedule, but here are four common plans.
Most often, the children live with one parent for the majority of the time, but spend every other weekend, plus one night a week with the other parent. This gives each parent a chance to see the children at least once a week. Typically the weekly time starts when the children are let out of school and either ends the next day when school begins or later that evening.
When there is joint custody, switching off parenting time every other week is clean and simple. Parents usually exchange the kids at an agreed time and place. It allows kids and parents to get into a routine. Also, it helps prevent parenting time problems caused by extra-curricular activities, since both parents are affected equally.
When one parent lives a considerable distance from the kids, courts typically give the long distance parent chunks of time outside of school. Many times it can be for the entire summer break. This solution is not ideal since there are periods when each parent will not see the children for months at a time.
An alternative route is to build a flexible plan. A flexible plan allows the long distance parent to schedule short vacations with the children throughout the year, in addition to a few weeks together in the summer. Be sure the mini-vacations don’t interfere with school attendance and are respectful of the other parent. i.e. Fathers should not schedule vacation over Mother’s Day.
If a divorcing couple has a young child, the plan should evolve as the child ages. Infants and young children have different needs than older children. Consider a three-stage schedule before a child reaches school age.
From 1 month to 1 year old a child may spend the majority of time with the mother, especially if the child is breastfeeding. At the same time, the father should be able to visit often enough to bond with the infant, perhaps each morning before work.
During ages 1 and 2, one on one visitation time with the father can increase, but typically a child will not spend any overnights at the father’s home. A common plan would allow an hour or so of time for the father after work each night and a few hours on the weekend.
From age 3 until school begins, overnights at the father’s home should be worked into the plan. A possible plan could be Saturday from 4 PM to Sunday at 4 PM, with 2 hours of time each Wednesday evening.
Creative scheduling can help give each parent enough quality time
Outside the box thinking can help you settle on a schedule for a typical week, holidays, and vacations. In a perfect world a parent scheduled physical custody for when they have the energy and freedom to maximize time with the children. Of course, life isn’t that simple and schedules will change.
For the weekly schedule ask yourself if you or your spouse have more time or can make more time. When you both have similar schedules a 50/50 split can be ideal. On the other hand, if you work nights, travel often, or spend long hours at the office, consider if there are other options to 50/50 custody. If it is best for the children to live with one parent more often, what can be done to give the other parent enough quality time?
The first and arguably most fun way is with vacation time. Kids love a summer camping expedition or road trip to the relatives. Extra vacation for a parent who will see the children less can even out the time difference. For children in school, spring break, mid-winter break, and the long winter break are great opportunities to lock in vacation time in advance. Vacation time not only gives one parent time to bond with the kids, but also provides a break from the demands of parenting to the other.
Holidays and celebrations are a second tool you can use to agree on a parenting plan. You have the ability to designate any holiday you wish in your plan. Birthdays, New Years, and even national ice cream day are available to make sure that both parents have time with the children. National Ice Cream Day is celebrated on the third Sunday in July, in case you were curious.
Tip: The mark of a good parenting plan is that it lasts until the children reach adulthood. Parenting plans last when they are specific. Consequently, an open ended plan should raise red flags.
For example, if a plan just states the children will be dropped off Wednesday evenings, it is missing crucial details. Can you guess what is missing? A much better plan would read, the children will be dropped off at 5 pm each Wednesday at the father’s residence. Flexibility may be fine today, but in five years it could cause miscommunication, frustration and eventually conflict. Don’t skip the specifics.
Highlights for Review
Hopefully you’re now ready to work on your parenting plan. In case you missed it, here’s a link to a Washington parenting plan sample. If you compare this to the court provided original, you’ll find that there is a lot of language removed. I believe court staff appreciate it when you delete unnecessary text from the forms. If you’re doing it yourself, just make sure that you don’t take anything critical out.