Washington law no longer uses the terms “sole custody” or “joint custody” – which were confusing and frequently led to misunderstandings – except as they pertain to how its orders are viewed in other jurisdictions. The court now focuses on parenting time and decision making, essentially spelling out what the former terms were attempting to convey. Parenting time arrangements are best understood as a continuum, as unique as the families who enter them.
Imagine a broad spectrum of options with parents who are completely cooperative at one end and a single parent raising children alone, with no involvement on the part of the other parent, at its other. At the cooperative end, parents may live next door to each other and the children may go back and forth easily and informally. At the other end, the non-custodial parent may have died or disappeared entirely. Most families fall between these extremes.
In many cases, parents will be expected to make decisions together on issues pertaining to the well being of the children, such as their educational, health care and religious needs. However, if there are findings of abuse, neglect or other factors which may negatively impact a child, one parent’s rights may be restricted by the court to one extent or another.
Separate from decision making is the issue of a child’s living arrangements. Some children thrive when spending equal time with each parent. Other children are best off residing primarily with one parent and secondarily with the other. In extreme circumstances, such as situations involving neglect or abuse, it can best for children to have limited or no contact at all with the deficient parent.
Working Together Effectively
When parents can work together effectively, the children benefit most of all. Sharing decision making responsibility works most easily when:
- Both parents are responsive to the emotional needs of children;
- Each parent trusts the other to make good decisions;
- Each parent has the maturity to set aside the personal differences that gave rise to the break up of the family and focus instead on doing what’s best for the children; and
- There is no history of domestic violence or other control issues that would make working together difficult or impossible.
The more parents deviate from this ideal, the more they may have to work at learning to share decision making responsibilities effectively. In all cases, the needs of children should come before those of the parents themselves.
It is very hard on children when they find themselves at the center of ongoing conflict between their parents. That’s why it’s essential that parents make their best effort to work together.
In those situations where working together is impossible because the other parent is unwilling or unable to place the children’s needs before his or her own, it’s important to address that issue to the court and seek appropriate orders.
Parents Working Together
Regardless of how easy or difficult it is to share decision making, please understand that parents can and should attempt to work together in most cases, even when one parent is more involved than the other. There are unusual cases in which the other parent is so harmful that your duty, as a good parent, is to protect your children from him or her. Fortunately, this is rare. In the vast majority of divorces and parentage actions, children will do best when both parents take a positive and active role, and each encourages the children to have a continuing, close relationship with the other.
The Importance of Consulting an Attorney
There are many ways in which divorce impacts the well being of children. To explore the various types of parenting arrangements in adequate detail and evaluate which may be best for your children, consult with a competent domestic relations attorney.
Getting It Right the First Time
Please keep in mind that parenting arrangements should be done right the first time. If you enter into an agreement that is inappropriate, or if the court is presented with inadequate information upon which to enter orders, the impact on your children can be negative in the extreme. Even so, once orders are entered, they can be challenging and costly to modify. This is true regardless of whether those orders were the result of negotiated settlement or litigation. Therefore, it is important to focus from the outset on obtaining those orders that best serve your children.
Children Are Priceless
Attorneys are expensive but children are priceless. Even if you and your spouse are in agreement about parenting arrangements, I recommend you consult with a competent domestic relations attorney before making important decisions.