Parenting Plans (court orders about child custody)

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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What is a Parenting Plan?

A Parenting Plan is an order entered by a court in one of these legal matters:

  • Divorce (Petition for Dissolution of Marriage)

  • Separation (Petition for Legal Separation)

  • Parentage (Petition to Establish Parentage)

  • Request for a parenting plan after parentage has been settled without a parenting plan (Motion or Petition for a Parenting Plan)

  • Change of child custody (Petition to Modify Custody)

  • Request for child custody by a non-parent (Petition for Non-Parental Custody)

What does the Parenting Plan tell me?

  • Which parent the child will live with (custody);

  • The amount of time the child will spend with each parent;

  • Which parent will make major decisions about the child; and

  • How you and the other parent will work out major disagreements.

How do I get a Parenting Plan for my child?

You may get a Parenting Plan when you are a party to any of the court matters listed above. You may also file a proposed Parenting Plan if one of the above matters has already been filed, but the court has not ordered a Parenting Plan.

You should file the Parenting Plan with your other papers--petition, motion, or response. You must also have it served on every other party in the case. You must give a copy of all your case papers to the other party in the case. Call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014 or ask your court's family law facilitator about rules for serving court papers.

When will a court approve my Parenting Plan?

If you and the other parent agree on a proposed Parenting Plan, the court will usually approve it.

If you and the other parent disagree, the court will decide upon a Parenting Plan after a hearing or trial.
The court looks at many things when deciding. The most important factor is the best interests of the child.

Can I ask for a Parenting Plan that gives us joint custody of our child?

Probably not. It is very rare for a court in Washington to decide on a final Parenting Plan that provides for a 50/50 custody arrangement.

How does the court make sure we follow the Parenting Plan?

Once the court signs a Parenting Plan, it becomes a binding court order. Both parents must follow it. Example: you may not refuse to allow the other parent to see the child just because that parent has not paid child support.

If the other parent does not allow you to see the child when you have the right to do so, the other parent may be found in contempt of court. If a parent is found in contempt, the court could order make-up visitation time, jail time, fines, or some other type of punishment. If the court finds you in contempt more than once in a three-year period, the court can use that as a reason to change custody of the child.

How can I change a Permanent/Final Parenting Plan?

It is hard to change a Parenting Plan after it is final. Usually, the court will change it if you and the other parent agree to the change. If you do not agree, the court may make major changes, such as which parent the child lives with, only if a major change has taken place in the child's life or the other parent's life since the original Parenting Plan was final. It is not enough that the parent wanting the change thinks that his/her life has gotten better and so the children should now live with him/her.
If you do not agree on the change, one of these things must have happened for the court to order a change in where the child lives:

  • The child has gone to live with one parent for an extended period of time with the other parent's permission.

  • The parent who does not want the change has been held in contempt of court at least twice in three years, or that parent has been convicted of interfering with the other parent's time with the child.

  • The child's present life with a parent has been shown to be physically or emotionally harmful.

The court may make minor changes more easily. Example:  a court can make minor changes to the amount of time or certain days the child spends with either parent if the court finds it is in the child's best interests.

If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, you may ask to change your Parenting Plan on your own. Our packet called Filing a Petition to Modify/Adjust a Parenting Plan or Custody Decree has forms and instructions. You can get it and other helpful information online at the Washington LawHelp website: www.washingtonlawhelp.org.

You may also get the court forms on the web at http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/ or ask your courthouse facilitator. (Facilitators at the courthouse help people who do not have a lawyer find and file the right forms in child custody and divorce matters.) Or ask the Superior Court Clerk for the forms. If you do not have Internet access or a courthouse, ask that forms be mailed to you from CLEAR. Call 1-888-201-1014.

What if I want to move with the child?

All parenting plans entered by a court on or after June 8, 2000 must state what will happen if you or the other parent wants to move (relocate) with the child. The parent who wants to move the child must give the other parent written notice before a move. The notice gives the other parent a chance to object to the move and to ask the court to change the existing Parenting Plan.

For more information on moving with your child, ask for the Questions and Answers about Washington's Relocation Law and Child Custody Modification publications from CLEAR. Call 1-888-201-1014. Or download them at www.washingtonlawhelp.org. Or call the Legal Voice Information & Referral Line at (206) 621-7691.

If you are the primary custodian and you are planning to move, you must know and understand the relocation laws and follow the requirements before moving.

May I file my Parenting Plan in Washington State?

Maybe not. Washington may not have the ability (jurisdiction) to enter a Parenting Plan if:

  • Your child lives in a different state;

  • The child has not been living in Washington for at least six months;

  • Another state has already entered an order about the child.

Talk to a lawyer about this.

How can I get legal help?

CLEAR is Washington's toll-free, centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance with civil legal problems. 

  • Outside King County: Call 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:10 a.m. until 12:25 p.m. CLEAR works with a language line to provide interpreters as needed at no cost to callers. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, please call 1-888-201-1014 using your preferred TTY or Video relay service.

  • King County: Call 211 for information and referral to an appropriate legal services provider Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. You may also call (206) 461-3200, or the toll-free number, which may be useful when calling from a pay phone, 1-877-211-WASH (9274). 211 works with a language line to provide interpreters as needed at no cost to callers. Deaf and hearing-impaired callers can call 1-800-833-6384 or 711 to be connected to a relay operator at no cost, who will then connect them with 211. Information on legal service providers in King County may also be accessed through 211's website at www.resourcehouse.com/win211/.

  • Persons 60 and Over: Persons 60 or over may call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111, regardless of income.


This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice. This information is current as of the date of its printing, November 2012.

© 2012 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)