How Do I Change My Parenting Plan?

Question

I was divorced from my wife about five years ago.  We have two kids, who were toddlers when we split up.  When we divorced, I agreed that the kids would live mostly with their mom, and that I would have them with me every other weekend.  We have a final parenting plan that formalizes this agreement.  Now that the kids are older and a little more independent, I would like to have more time with them.  What are my options for changing my parenting plan so that I can have more time?

Answer

In Washington state, formally changing a parenting plan can be difficult, especially if a parent is asking the court to change the primary residence of the children.  Washington courts place a high value on ensuring that children have a predictable and consistent residential schedule, and thus will only allow changes to a permanent parenting plan if a parent can show there has been a “substantial change in circumstances” of either the parent or the child.

RCW 26.09.260 sets out the factors which must be present for a court to modify or adjust a parenting plan.  As you can see, even relatively minor changes to a parenting plan – i.e. adjustments to the schedule that do not change the primary residence of the children – require a showing of a substantial change in circumstances. Under the statute, a parent can seek either a “major” modification, which is a modification that changes the children’s primary residence from one parent to another, or a “minor” modification which gives one parent more time but not so much time that the children reside with that parent primarily.

Although both types of parenting plan modification require the moving party to demonstrate that there has been a substantial change in circumstances, a minor modification does not require a parent to show that a child has either (1) become integrated into the parent’s home, (2) is at risk of harm in their current environment, or (3) that the other parent has been found in contempt of the parenting plan at least twice in three years.  Instead, a parent who wants a minor modification needs to show that a change to the schedule is necessary due to a change in the parent’s residence or work schedule, or that the current schedule does not provide “reasonable time” with the children.

If the parents agree* to modify their parenting plan, the court may modify a parenting plan so long as that change is in the best interests of the children.  So, your best first option is to try to work out a new schedule with your ex.  If you are able to reach an agreement that gives you more time with your kids, it’s likely that the court will enter a new parenting plan.  If you can’t reach an agreement, you may need to consult with a lawyer to determine whether you are likely to succeed in a formal modification action.

*Note however, that courts are not required to formalize agreements regarding parenting.  We’ve previously discussed this issue, in the context of separation agreements, here.

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