How to Modify a Parenting Plan in Washington

Learn about changing a parenting plan in Washington.

    Once you've established a Washington state parenting plan, a judge will be very cautious about making major changes to custody arrangements. Parents who want to modify custody in Washington must prove to the court that there's been a substantial change and that a custody modification is essential to a child's well-being.

    Overview of Parenting Plans in Washington

    A parenting plan is part of a child custody order and sets forth the details of physical and legal custody. A parenting plan will provide a detailed custody schedule, including where the child spends weekends and holidays, and which parent is responsible for transportation between visits.

    Parents can create parenting plans together on their own or with the help of a mediator. In cases where parents can't agree on custody, each parent should submit a parenting plan to the court. Washington state parenting plan forms are available are available through some local court clerks. A judge will decide custody at trial based on a child's best interests.

    How to Modify a Parenting Plan

    A parent seeking to modify custody in Washington must file legal forms with the court, including a "Petition for Modification of Adjustment of Child Custody Decree/Parenting Plan." The petition should specify what kinds of custody changes the parent is seeking.

    The Washington Courts website has a link to the Washington state parenting plan forms and forms requesting a modification. When filling out your modification paperwork, you'll need to show the court that there's been a substantial change in circumstances and that a modification would serve your child's best interests.

    A parent must show that the major change has occurred since the original parenting plan was entered. Usually a parent's remarriage or new baby isn't enough to justify a change in custody.

    However, if one parent relocates internationally or the custodial parent receives a terminal medical diagnosis, a judge might adjust custody as long as the change would serve the child's best interests. To determine whether a change in custody is appropriate, a judge will schedule an "adequate cause" hearing.

    What Is an Adequate Cause Hearing?

    An "adequate cause hearing" is sometimes called a "threshold hearing." Washington's custody laws require a judge to hold an "adequate cause hearing" in any custody modification case. Both parents are required to attend the hearing. The parent requesting a custody modification has the burden of showing adequate cause (sufficient reason) for modifying a custody decree or parenting plan. You and your spouse may be required to present evidence at an "adequate cause hearing."

    Why Must I Attend an Adequate Cause Hearing?

    Courts generally favor custodial continuity and strive to ensure that children have stable environments whenever possible. Therefore, judges try to avoid making major changes to established parenting plans unless a child's best interests require it. Washington courts give a certain amount of deference to parenting plans that are already in place. See Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.002 (2020) explaining the stated policy in favor of custodial continuity.

    Before parents can schedule a modification hearing, they must convince the court that adequate cause exists for a full hearing on the modification petition. This requirement also helps parents from harassing each other with useless and repeated custody hearings.

    At an adequate cause hearing, both parents will have the opportunity to present factual affidavits (written declarations) supporting or 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. See Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.260 (2020).

    What Factors Does a Judge Consider When Deciding Whether to Modify a Parenting Plan?

    A judge will consider any factor that pertains to a child's best interests, as well as the following:

    • whether the parents agree to the modification
    • the child's integration into the family of the parenting requesting the custody modification
    • whether the child's current home environment is harmful to the child's physical, mental, or emotional health
    • whether the proposed change in environment would serve the child's best interests
    • whether either parent has been found in "contempt of court" (violation of a court's order) at least twice within three years for failure to comply with the court's current parenting plan, or
    • whether either parent has been interfered in the other parent's right to exercise custody or visitation.

    Judges recognize that any disruptions to a child's living arrangements have drawbacks. To justify a change to an existing parenting plan, the judge must find that the advantages of a change in custody, outweigh the negatives.

    If I Lose My Request to Modify Custody, Will I Have to Pay the Other Side's Attorney's Fees?

    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), a judge may order you to 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 Custody Modification?

    A 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.

    Any time a parent seeks to modify custody in Washington, he or she must show there's been substantial change in circumstances. This rule applies even to minor custody modifications. However, a judge does not need to consider all the factors outlined above when making minor changes to a parenting plan.

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