Drafting Parenting Plans

grayscale photo of woman in black dress holding child in black shirt

If you are getting divorced in Washington and have children, you need a parenting plan to finalize your divorce.

The first step is to think about a residential schedule that you believe is best for your child(ren). You know your child(ren) the best.  In an uncontested divorce, parents may be able to talk through a schedule that works well for their family and then simply fill out the parenting plan form. There are lots of considerations for these plans, such as, how far parents live from each other; whether both parents should get equal amounts of time with the child(ren); and the ages of their children. 

What Is A Parenting Plan?

Parenting plans include schedules for the school year, the summer, and the holidays. They also determine how parents should make major decisions and resolve disputes.

Parenting Plan Considerations Based on Age

Here are some typical schedules that will be ordered by the court or agreed upon by parents at various ages. Of course, each family and child is different and there is no standard that is applied. 

  • 0-2 Babies
    • Consider when and if overnights away from the primary caregiver should occur, keeping in mind breastfeeding needs, co-sleeping practices, medical needs, etc.
    • If it is decided overnights are not appropriate, you can still arrange frequent visits with the non-overnight parent (visit with the baby every day for a few hours).
  • 3-5 Preschool
    • Parents with children this age are often comfortable with  about two overnights in a row away from a parent, but many parents do not like to go longer than five overnights or more in a week. In a 50/50 scenario, the court will sometimes order a 2-2-3 schedule where the children rotate parents every 2 to 3 days. 
  • Kindergarten – 5th grade
    • Once kids are in school, parents are typically comfortable with a little bit more time away from each parent. 
    • School days introduce a more rigid schedule, so you might be able to introduce a 2:5 option where they spend two nights with one parent (Mon/Tues), two nights with the other (Wed/Thurs), then alternate weekends overnights (Fri/Sat/Sun).
    • This is an easy model for kids to wrap their brains around and is easy for the parents to coordinate.
  • Middle School and High School
    • Here, you might be comfortable moving to a week on-week off schedule.
    • Many parents wait until their child is 10 years old to  make the switch to week on/week off.

Schedule aside, parenting plans list which parent will be making major decisions for the kids (like who their doctor will be, what school they attend), and implement a dispute resolution process which may be needed when decision making is joint.

Parenting Plan Modifications

What happens after you’ve got your parenting plan in place, it’s been signed by a judge . . . and then modifications are needed? 

Honestly, this happens a lot for minor modifications The official parenting plan doesn’t preclude parents from making other agreements later (like switching a day  due to a change in work schedule). I like to say that the parenting plan is the “fallback,” in case there are disputes, but if you and your ex can figure out the inevitable scheduling wrinkles on your own, put the plan in a drawer and just parent. However, it is still a good idea to put those small changes in an email to each other so there is no confusion. 

A major parenting plan modification, like changing the primary parent or reducing a parent’s time significantly, is difficult to do.  The main reason is that the court finds changes to the parenting plan disruptive to children and doesn’t want the family back in court all of the time.  However, in the case that a parent becomes unfit (think a parent gets a DUI with a child in the car), or there is a significant change (like a military parent who gets stationed in a different state), parents can petition to modify their original parenting plan. You will likely want to consult with an attorney to determine if you have a basis to modify your parenting plan – it is not easy to do and professional help is advised. 

What Happens if We Can’t Agree On A Parenting Plan?

If the parents are not able to agree on what parenting plan is in the best interest of their children, it may be time to consider working with a professional mediator. As your lawyer, we will sit down with you and identify a plan that could work well for your family. Then, a professional mediator works with both attorneys and the parents to see if there is a compromise that everyone can agree upon.

In a contested divorce, there are sometimes non-negotiable issues that require court intervention. Here, your attorney would present a motion to the court requesting a temporary parenting plan that might restrict or reduce one parent’s access to the children, depending on safety concerns revolving around:

  • Domestic violence
  • Child abuse
  • Substance use
  • Mental Health

On A Personal Note

For many parents, the parenting plan can be the most challenging part of their divorce.  The fear of losing a daily relationship with their children is overwhelming.  When you are married and living in the same household, you are used to seeing your children every day. The thought of reducing that by (sometimes) half is really painful and difficult. It is also a massive adjustment for the kids.

There is hope.  I have found that many of my clients who struggled with the idea of seeing their children less have actually turned that into an asset for themselves and their children.  For example, getting a break from parenting responsibilities gives you the renewed energy to make your parenting time high in quality.  When the children come back to your house, you are rested, have the laundry done, the fridge packed, and are ready just to love on those kids and give them your time.  Some parents are even able to arrange their work schedules so they only travel when their children are at the other parent’s house or they work on a reduced schedule when they have their kids. 

While very hard to adjust to at first, I urge you to be patient and in time, you may find the silver lining to your plan is an opportunity to parent yourself, too.