Child custody is a sticky subject. Multiple considerations come into play with child custody cases. For example, what are the rights of the mother, the rights of the father, and most importantly, what is in the best interests of the child?
Many people assume that mothers will get custody of the children when a couple separates. However, child custody for fathers is not unheard of. Unfortunately, the children too often become pawns in a painful chess game when it comes to child custody.
Child custody laws are not black and white. There are a lot of gray areas in laws regarding divorce, child custody, visitation, and child support. That’s because each situation is as unique as the family unit itself. The best way to understand your rights is to contact a child custody attorney in Bellevue.
What is A Conservatorship?
In Washington state, what most states call custody is called a conservatorship. The term is used because the parent who is with the child the most typically makes the important decisions regarding child-rearing. The courts in Washington can award a sole conservatorship or order a joint conservatorship. The difference between the two is how the decisions for the child get made.
A sole conservatorship is equivalent to sole custody in other states. That means that one parent makes the majority of the decisions for the welfare of the children. A joint conservatorship means that parents share the decision-making responsibility equally.
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What Is A Parenting Plan?
One of the first things to happen when parents separate is to make decisions regarding custody arrangements. In Washington state, parents are charged with creating a parenting plan. They can either work together to negotiate a plan that is acceptable to both of them, or they can submit individual plans that detail what they think would be best for the children.
The parenting plan is your way of letting the court know who you think should have physical custody and legal custody and what each person’s rights and responsibilities are regarding the children. The plans should include:
- Where you think the children should live, when they should be at each home, and for how long.
- Which parent makes which decisions. Do you make them all? Does your former spouse get to decide on medical care? Will you make all decisions together?
- Where the children are for the holidays and how they will be transported to the gatherings.
- Who is going to pay child support, how much they will pay, and when it will be paid—weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc.
- What about conflicts? How will you and your former spouse resolve issues that arise between you regarding the children in the future?
You can submit a temporary parenting plan while you are working on the details of your permanent plan. If the parents aren’t in agreement, it can take a while to iron out all of the details of a good parenting plan. The temporary plan has a short, set time limit to allow parties to work out the details of the permanent plan. If you don’t have a permanent plan submitted by the deadline, the judge will create a plan for you.
Even when parents agree on what they consider a permanent parenting plan, they still must submit it to the court for approval by the judge. Once the judge approves the plan, it becomes legally binding. Both parents must follow the plan unless the court approves changes, the child turns 18, or the child becomes legally emancipated.
What About Visitation?
If the parenting plan calls for the child to live primarily in one home, then the other parent is legally entitled to visitation with the children. Of course, the parent’s physical, emotional, and mental stability determines whether they are fit to care for the children. Typically, if a visitation arrangement is in the plan, the parent getting visitation is legally entitled to one weeknight visit and every other weekend with the children.
Depending on the family situation and the judge in question, the children can be allowed to visit with their parent more often than the legal limits, but they cannot legally be there for less time. There are options for supervised visitation if a parent is deemed unable to provide safe visits—even in the cases of abuse. In cases with supervised visits, the supervised sessions will be the standard until the judge is confident the parent can safely be alone with the child without causing them harm.
Can You Withhold Visitation in Washington State?
If you’ve had your ex refuse to let you see your children, they have withheld visitation from you. Legally, they can’t do that unless the child is in imminent danger. However, many people do it for various reasons, including:
- Retaliation, punishment, or revenge for something that has nothing to do with the children.
- Bitterness, anger, or resentment due to decisions that have been made in the divorce or in past actions.
- “Making up time” when their day or time with the child wasn’t observed according to the plan.
- Reciprocating the other parent’s actions—in other words, the other parent withheld visits, so why shouldn’t they?
- Claiming that the child doesn’t want to see the other parent (or allowing the child to have their way if they don’t want to see the other parent)
- Withholding visits because child support payments were missed
- Fear that harm will come to the child in the other parent’s care.
Unless there is proof of danger to the child, these are not legal reasons to withhold visitation. That includes the case of unpaid child support or previously withheld visitation.
A parent can only withhold visitation when the child is obviously in danger. For example, if the parent comes to get the child, and they are obviously drunk, high, or otherwise without control of their faculties. The parent can then refuse to allow the child to go with them.
If the situation escalates and the parent creating the dangerous situation becomes violent or refuses to leave your property, you can call the police to deal with the situation. If the police are called, be sure to get a copy of the police report to keep with your files. The report can be evidence in any future court proceedings.
If you are a father and suspect the mother of your children is putting them in danger talk to your lawyer about the possibility of obtaining child custody for fathers in Bellevue, Washington. Suspected danger is not a valid reason to withhold visitation. However, you can contact a child custody lawyer to discuss your options.
While you’re waiting to be able to petition the court, document any and all evidence. Once you have gathered your evidence, you have the grounds to petition for a change of custody or visitation for the protection of your child. You can sometimes qualify for a temporary restraining order against the other parent to maintain the child’s safety while the case is being decided.
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You’ve Petitioned for A Change of Custody; Now What?
First, you should realize that the courts want to honor a child’s right to be raised by both parents unless contact with one or both of them is proven to be harmful to the children. Naturally, you’d like the courts to consider you the better parent; however, that isn’t how courts decide these cases. The court decides based on what it deems the child’s best interests. Whichever parent better fits what the courts believe to be best for the child is the one they will favor in their judgments.
Keep in mind that typically, the courts want both parents to be active participants in the lives of their children. They don’t consider parenting styles or preferences. Also, if you’ve intentionally or unintentionally done something against your child’s best interests, the courts will take a critical view of that action.
Consider your actions as the court would. Do things that the judge would approve of you doing. For example, be flexible with your ex while ensuring they at least receive the time they have been awarded. Always keep the best interest of your child at the front of your mind, and you can feel more confident going into your next court date.
Hiring a Bellevue Child Custody Attorney to Help You and Your Family
Child custody cases are nothing if not complicated. In custody cases in Washington state, the courts decide conservatorship based on a parenting plan. The parents can create the plan together, or they can submit individualized plans for review. Once the judge approves the plan, it becomes legally binding, and it must be followed by all parties involved.
If you have a parenting plan in place, visitation cannot be withheld legally unless there is proof of imminent danger to the children. If your ex has decided to withhold visitation without cause, they are both disobeying court orders and ignoring your child’s best interests. Regardless of how they feel about you, they have to abide by the visitation portion of your parenting plan, even if you’ve been ordered to pay child support and missed a payment. If you find yourself in a situation like this, contact the child custody lawyers at the Aberdeen Law Firm to discuss your rights and the action you should take.
Related Content: How Child Custody is Determined by Lawyers in Bellevue, WA