How to Modify a Parenting Plan in Washington - FAQs

The following article answers frequently asked questions about changing a parenting plan in Washington.

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    The state of Washington takes custody decisions and parenting plans very seriously. Once established, courts are very cautious about making major changes to custody arrangements. Parents that want to modify a parenting plan will have to show adequate cause and a substantial change in circumstances.

    Overview of Parenting Plans

    A parenting plan is part of a child custody order and sets forth the details of physical custody, such as when and where children will spend their time: it may include a specific schedule of days, times, holidays, and vacations.

    Parents can agree on a parenting plan, or if they can’t agree, a court may decide the terms of a plan for them. Either way, the parenting plan will become part of an official child custody decree (order).

    How do Parents Modify a Parenting Plan?

    Parents that want to modify (change) a parenting plan (“moving parent”) will have to file legal forms, including a “Petition for Modification of Adjustment of Child Custody Decree/Parenting Plan,” which identifies the desired change to the parenting plan and a "Summons," which informs the nonmoving parent about the court action and the need to respond.

    Click here for a link to these forms.

    Moving parents must show a “substantial change” in the circumstances of the child or the nonmoving parent and that the modification is necessary to serve the best interests of the child. The basis for the modification must have arisen after entry of the prior parenting plan, or been unknown to the court when the original parenting plan was entered.

    However, moving parents that are requesting anything more than a minor change must appear at an “adequate cause” hearing and prove there are sufficient grounds to make a major change to the current plan.

    What is an Adequate Cause Hearing?

    Also known as a “threshold hearing,” Washington courts require an “adequate cause” hearing where the moving parent must show adequate cause (sufficient reason) to modify a custody decree or parenting plan.

    Why Must I Attend an Adequate Cause Hearing?

    Courts generally favor custodial continuity and strive to ensure children have stable environments whenever possible. Therefore, major changes to an established parenting plan aren’t really encouraged, and Washington courts give a certain amount of deference to parenting plans that are already in place. In other words, judges will proceed with caution when asked to change the status quo.

    See RCWA 26.09.002 for the stated policy in favor of custodial continuity.

    As a result, before parents can even schedule a modification hearing, they must convince a judge that adequate cause exists for a full hearing on their petition. This requirement is also intended to help prevent moving parents from harassing nonmoving parents with useless hearings.

    At an adequate cause hearing, both parents will have the opportunity to present factual affidavits (written declarations) supporting and opposing the modification. Essentially, the court looks to see if the moving party has factual allegations, which if true, might establish sufficient grounds for a change. If adequate cause is found, the court will set a hearing date for the merits of the modification itself. If adequate cause is not found, the court will deny the request to modify the plan.

    The statute governing modification of parenting plans or custody decrees is RCWA 26.09.260.

    What Factors do Courts Consider when Deciding whether to Modify a Parenting Plan?

    Courts will modify a plan if:

    • the parents agree to the modification
    • the child has been integrated into the family of the parent requesting the change with the consent of the other parent - in substantial deviation from the original parenting plan
    • the child's current environment is harmful to the child's physical, mental, or emotional health, and the harm likely to be caused by a change of environment is outweighed by the advantage of the change to the child
    • a judge has found the nonmoving parent in “contempt of court” (violation of a court’s order) at least twice within three years, because the parent failed to comply with the residential time provisions in the original court-ordered parenting plan, or
    • the parent has been convicted of custodial interference in the first or second degree.

    Will I Have to Pay the Other Side’s Attorney’s Fees if the Court Denies My Request?

    Possibly. If the court finds that you requested a modification to the parenting plan in bad faith (for example, in order to harass the other parent), it may order that you pay the nonmoving party’s attorney’s fees and court costs. But merely failing to demonstrate adequate cause by itself is considered not bad faith.

    What is a Minor Modification?

    Minor modification is a change in the residential schedule that:

    • does not change the child’s scheduled residence the majority of the time, and
    • does not exceed 24 full days in a calendar year, or
    • is based on a change of residence or an involuntary change to a parent's work schedule, which makes the current residential schedule impractical to follow.

    A showing of a substantial change in circumstances may still required, but courts don’t need to consider the factors outlined above when making minor changes to a parenting plan.

    Resources

    See RCWA 26.09.002 for the stated policy in favor of custodial continuity.

    The statute governing modification of parenting plans or custody decrees is RCWA 26.09.260.

    For a case that covers a particular circumstance where the modification statute will not apply to a request for a change in custody, see Link v. Link, 165 Wash.App. 268 (2011).

    For a link to the Washington courts website and useful family law forms, including a petition for modification of custody or parenting plans, click here.

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