You already know that divorce is never easy. When children are involved, the difficulties multiply. If you and your spouse are parents who are divorcing, try to work out your own child custody agreement, or a judge will do it for you. A Spokane family law attorney can help.

In the state of Washington, custody and visitation agreements are called parenting plans. If divorcing (or never married) parents create and agree to their own parenting plan, a judge will usually sign off on that agreement.

But if the parents can’t find common ground regarding custody and visitation, a court will make the decision for them and impose its own parenting plan.

What Does It Take To Change A Parenting Plan?

Whether your child custody arrangement is a voluntary agreement or was imposed by a judge, at some point, after a number of years if not sooner, circumstances will almost inevitably change, and the parenting plan will need to be changed to reflect those changing circumstances.

How and when can a child custody order be modified in the State of Washington? If your child’s other parent seeks a child custody modification, do you have the right to challenge that request if you need to? Keep reading, because every parent in Washington needs these answers.

Child custody order modifications are not approved for frivolous or negligible reasons.

What Does A Parenting Plan Do?

When a parenting plan has been ordered or approved by a Washington court, a judge will be extremely reluctant about changing that plan. To modify a custody order, you must show an adequate reason – and you must show that your circumstances have changed substantially.

A parenting plan spells out the details of child custody and visitation, including where and when the children spend time with each parent. A parenting plan will also account for specific days, times, vacations, and holidays.

How Can You Modify A Parenting Plan/Child Custody Order?

Parents who want to change a custody order should know that modifying it over the other parent’s objection can be difficult. The other parent’s objection combined with the court’s reticence to change a custody order after it has been issued can pose a formidable legal obstacle.

A parent who is relocating and who wants to modify the parenting plan must show that a substantial change in the child’s circumstances (or the non-relocating parent’s circumstances) will be the result of the relocation and that a modification will be in the child’s best interests.

The reason for any modification of a child custody order must arise after the custody order is issued, unless the court was unaware of the reason when the original order was issued.

What Is An Adequate Cause Hearing?

If you are a parent who is seeking to modify a child custody order, have your attorney file your petition with the court. The court will schedule an adequate cause hearing where you and your lawyer must explain that you are seeking a custody order modification for an adequate reason.

The highest priority for the court is the best interests of children. To create and maintain stability and order in a child’s life, the courts prefer not to modify previously issued custody orders. To modify a custody order, a parent must give the court a reason that constitutes adequate cause.

In fact, state law in Washington favors only the custody order modifications that are “required to protect the child from physical, mental, or emotional harm” (Revised Code of Washington 26.09.002).

An adequate cause hearing is only the first step in the modification of a parenting plan. It is a hearing where you and your attorney must persuade the court that it should schedule a full hearing on your modification request.

Both parents at adequate cause hearings may offer evidence and testimony that supports or opposes the modification request. The court determines if the evidence and testimony constitute adequate cause for a full hearing. If no adequate cause is found, the request is denied.

What Factors Are Considered At A Modification Hearing?

While maintaining the best interests of the children as the court’s highest priority, when deciding whether to approve the modification of a child custody order, these are the questions that a court must have answers for:

1. Do both parents favor the proposed modification?

2. Have both parents already deviated substantially from the original parenting plan, and has the child adapted to that deviation without any damage to the child’s best interests?

3. Will the harm possibly caused by changing the child’s current living situation be outweighed by the benefits of such a change?

4. Has either parent been held in contempt of court for a failure to comply with the terms of the original parenting plan, or has either parent been convicted for custodial interference (parental kidnapping)?

What If Your Modification Request Is Denied?

If a court determines that you sought a child custody order modification in bad faith – to harass your ex-spouse, for example – the court can order you to pay the other parent’s court costs and attorney’s fees. By itself, a failure to show adequate cause does not constitute bad faith.

What Is Considered A Minor Modification?

Although you will still have to show that your situation has changed considerably, the court is more likely to approve a minor modification to a parenting plan. A minor modification is not a custody change.

It is merely a change to the residence and visitation schedule that:

1. doesn’t change the child’s primary residence

2. doesn’t change the child’s location more than 24 days of the calendar year

3. arises from a parental relocation or an involuntary change to one parent’s work schedule that makes the established parenting plan impractical or impossible to follow

Why Is A Family Law Attorney’s Help So Important?

If you and your child’s other parent both agree to the modification that you are requesting, it can save both of you both a great deal of time and aggravation.

However, if the other parent is requesting a modification of the custody order, and you object to the proposed modification, you will also need to be represented by your own Washington family law attorney.

Every child is unique, and every child custody issue is unique. Requests to modify child custody orders are not uncommon, but you must be advised and represented by a family lawyer you can trust – because nothing is more important than your child or children.