A Parenting Plan enforces custody and visitation

You should never feel you have to give up your rights just to settle matters.

In a divorce, child custody and visitation are often the most difficult issues to settle. Every parent wants to spend as much time with their children as possible. As a parent, you want to know your visitation and custody rights will be respected and you will be able to see your children and stay involved in their lives. In Washington divorce law, the Parenting Plan is the legal document that details and enforces custody and visitation.

The most difficult problems arise when one of the parents is using the child custody and visitation as a weapon to punish the other spouse, a means to obtain unreasonable support or to avoid paying support. These ulterior motives can inflame what should be a reasonable process. This is not the time to cave in and hope to fix things down the road. The improper ulterior motives have to be identified and proven before they become accepted fact. You cannot allow your spouse to create a false reality, and sell it to the court.

Understanding the Parenting Plan

The goal of a parenting plan should be to establish a plan that works in the best interest of the child(ren) and maximizes the parents’ chances of successfully co-parenting the children.

If you are a parent facing divorce, your main concern is when and how often you will be able to see your children. You are likely spending time looking at the calendar, counting days, and thinking about who will have the kids during vacations. This is important because it affects your children.

Like you, the law is concerned with determining what is in the best interest of your children. To achieve this, the court requires a Parenting Plan. This written document details each of the parent’s rights and obligations to the children, and the residential schedule for the children. This is the source document that will eventually spell out your custody and visitation rights. When there is a dispute, the court will enforce the terms of the Parenting Plan. It is vitally important to get it right from the beginning.

Who Decides?

Since the Parenting Plan is filed with the court, you may be wondering who decides custody and visitation. In the best case, you and your spouse are able to decide on a plan with terms agreeable to both of you. This may take some negotiation back and forth between your attorneys. Even if agreed upon by both parties, the Parenting Plan must be approved by a judge.

If the parties in a divorce cannot agree to a Parenting Plan, the court will step in and make those decisions for the parents. The law requires the judge to act in the best interest of the children.  Before a judge rules on the Parenting Plan they will order the parties to proceed with a home study by a Guardian ad Litem who will report their findings to the court.  The parties will be required to try to settle their disagreements in court-ordered mediation. Only if negotiation and mediation fail will the court order the issue to be resolved at trial.

Guardian ad Litem

During the divorce proceedings, the court may appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). The GAL’s role is to provide a neutral and unbiased report to the court concerning the best interests of the children involved. The GAL will interview the parents, children, perform home visits and background checks. The GAL prepares a report and delivers it to the court. The report will help the parents in negotiating an agreement, or the judge in reaching a decision. The Parenting Plan will declare which parent is to be awarded primary custody (residential care) of the children, and the visitation awarded to the other parent or the details of the arrangement for joint custody.

Should You Settle for Less?

Faced with resistance and disagreement from the other side, some parents may be tempted to give in and just accept less in order to complete the Parenting Plan. Debating custody and visitation with your soon-to-be former spouse is just one of the emotionally draining events that can happen during a divorce. You may reason that it is better to give in than to let the court decide for you. You can always change things later. Right? Wrong!

You should never feel you have to give up your rights just to settle matters. At Morris – Sockle, we never accept the outdated notion that one parent deserves less custody or visitation in a divorce. The Parenting Plan will be in effect for many years. It needs to support your rights as a parent and your continued involvement in your child’s life.  Our lawyers know how to work with Guardian ad Litems to obtain the best results for you. However, do keep in mind that any behavior that is considered detrimental to the child will likely be surfaced in the process of divorce and scrutinized by the court. It is best to avoid any behavior that could negatively affect the courts’ opinion of you as a parent.

Temporary Orders

During the divorce process, temporary Parenting Plans will be ordered by the court.  Though temporary these orders are extremely important.  Temporary orders set the tone for the final Parenting Plan.  Losing in the temporary order is the first step to losing the Parenting Plan.  You need to work closely with your attorney to get what you feel is best for your children in the temporary order.  This is tough because the temporary orders are entered before the GAL reports to the court.  You have to be thorough in your preparation for the temporary order hearing.  That hearing is the first step to winning.  And winning is based on thorough preparation.

Final Parenting Plan

The temporary order sets a tone, but is not binding.  Poor conduct and lack of preparation can undermine a good temporary order.  Good conduct and thorough preparation can overcome a bad temporary order.  In the time between entry of the temporary order and entry on the final decree and Parenting Plan you must be on your best behavior, strictly follow the temporary order, even if you do not like it, and prepare to present your best case. Ultimately, all parties are working towards the final Parenting Plan. A binding court order, the Parenting Plan governs custody and visitation until the children reach the age of 18.

More than Just Visitation

The Parenting Plan covers more than just who has the children over summer break. The Plan also defines both legal and physical custody. The Parenting Plan declares who has authority to make decisions about the children’s health, education, and welfare. Decisions such as which school the children will attend, which doctors the children will see, and even what religion the children will practice are set out in the Plan. The Parenting Plan also controls how future disputes will be resolved. A properly written Parenting Plan will answer all the important questions about which parent can do what and when and will alleviate many problems in the future.


The court retains the power to enforce and modify the terms of the Parenting Plan even after the divorce is over. In order to maintain consistency for the children, the court is usually reluctant to change the Parenting Plan at a later time.  To modify the final Parenting Plan the moving party must show there has been a substantial change of circumstance since entry of the decree.  The Parenting Plan ordered at the time of the divorce is based upon the best interest of the children.  That is no longer the controlling question after divorce.  The court is still concerned about the best interest of the children, but a modification cannot be granted without a clear demonstration of a substantial change in the circumstances of the parties.

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