There is a definite trend in King County family court decisions toward 50/50 parenting plans. The question is whether this trend is beneficial for children and whether family law practitioners should advise clients to seek a 50/50 parenting schedule.
RCW § 26.09.187(3)(b) provides:
Where the limitations of RCW 26.09.191 are not dispositive, the court may order that a child frequently alternate his or her residence between the households of the parents for brief and substantially equal intervals of time if such provision is in the best interests of the child. In determining whether such an arrangement is in the best interests of the child, the court may consider the parties’ geographic proximity to the extent necessary to ensure the ability to share performance of the parenting functions.
What’s missing from the statute is a requirement that the parties have the ability to cooperate and communicate effectively to ensure that a 50/50 parenting schedule is workable for the children. Parents with a history of effective communication and cooperation are more likely to be able to successfully co-parent in a way that is workable for the children.
All too often, parties seek modifications a few years after the final parenting plan is entered because the 50/50 schedule is not viable, especially in those cases where the parents did not have a good working relationship at the time the initial plan was entered. This also occurs when there has been a pattern of coercive control by one parent, which increases conflict and puts the children at risk.
It is wise for practitioners to review the factors the court considers in RCW § 26.09.187(3)(a)1 to help clients evaluate whether a 50/50 parenting plan is warranted for their family situation. The statute provides that the court should make residential provisions that are consistent with the child’s development and consider the strength and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent, each parent’s past and potential for future performance of parenting functions, the parents’ work schedules, etc. The statute provides that the strength and stability of each parent’s relationship with the child should be given the most weight.
Rather than focusing on the fact that your client wants equal parenting, we should ask questions such as how extensive was their involvement in parenting during the marriage? Can they work effectively with the other parent? Do they live close to the other parent and ideally within the child’s school district? Are they willing and able to follow a 50/50 parenting schedule given their career and lifestyle?
Another prudent idea is to advise clients to read The Co-Parents’ Handbook by local parenting coach Karen Bonnell and child specialist Kristin Little, and consider whether they can envision an effective co-parenting relationship with the other parent. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers publishes Child-Centered Residential Guidelines that can help clients develop appropriate parenting schedules.
Parents should also consider the age of the children. With young children, parents should think about creating a phased-in plan where the parent who has not been the primary residential parent gradually increases their time with the child as the child grows older, so that parent develops a greater role in the child’s life.
For teenagers, an equal parenting schedule can become increasingly difficult to maintain. Teens need and desire greater control over their schedules. Encourage parents to include a flexibility clause in the parenting plan that allows the child some flexibility in the weekly schedule without letting the child dictate the overall schedule.
Before advocating for an equal parenting schedule, family law practitioners need to counsel clients to look truthfully at their parenting skills, their history of cooperation with the other parent and the likelihood that they can manage an equal parenting schedule. Having a workable and realistic parenting plan that truly serves the children’s best interests also serves the parents’ interests and reduces the likelihood of a subsequent modification action.
Megan Stanley is an attorney with Integrative Family Law, PLLC.
1 RCW § 26.09.187:
(3) RESIDENTIAL PROVISIONS.
(a) The court shall make residential provisions for each child which encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable, and nurturing relationship with the child, consistent with the child’s developmental level and the family’s social and economic circumstances. The child’s residential schedule shall be consistent with RCW 26.09.191. Where the limitations of RCW 26.09.191 are not dispositive of the child’s residential schedule, the court shall consider the following factors: (i) The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent; (ii) The agreements of the parties, provided they were entered into knowingly and voluntarily; (iii) Each parent’s past and potential for future performance of parenting functions as defined in *RCW 26.09.004(3), including whether a parent has taken greater responsibility for performing parenting functions relating to the daily needs of the child; (iv) The emotional needs and developmental level of the child; (v) The child’s relationship with siblings and with other significant adults, as well as the child’s involvement with his or her physical surroundings, school, or other significant activities; (vi) The wishes of the parents and the wishes of a child who is sufficiently mature to express reasoned and independent preferences as to his or her residential schedule; and (vii) Each parent’s employment schedule, and shall make accommodations consistent with those schedules. Factor (i) shall be given the greatest weight.
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