As schools, workplaces, and other public areas reopen and travel resumes, many parents are breathing sighs of relief. For those parents who share custody of their children, COVID-19 travel restrictions and school shutdowns caused significant upheaval to existing custody arrangements. Restrictions on travel and gatherings outside the home, advisories to limit in-person contact with people outside of your “pod,” and other state and federal restrictions forced changes to many parenting plans.
As things return to normal, parents who have borne the brunt of accommodating these changes during the pandemic may want to do things differently going forward. Some parents may realize that some changes they made to adapt to the regulations are worth keeping, and they may want to obtain court approval to make those changes permanent. A parent may want to make up for visitation time they lost due to travel or health restrictions but face opposition from the other parent. How can Washington parents update their custody and parenting plans as we emerge from COVID-19?
Washington Custody and Parenting Plan Guidelines
Washington State’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds department emphasized during the pandemic that nothing in their guidelines or the Governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order intended to prevent compliance with a private parenting plan. The State encouraged parents who are co-parenting under a parenting plan to communicate with one another, strive to maintain healthy family relationships, and protect each child’s best interests and health. It suggested this might involve having parenting time outside, arranging videoconference or telephone communications, and taking other steps to ensure each parent maintains a close relationship with their children. The courts noted that fear of illness, disagreement about safety protocols, or a desire to be extra cautious were not valid justifications for denying a parent visitation or parenting time.
Many times, however, state and federal guidelines and restrictions conflicted with parenting plans in ways that no amount of creative thinking or compromise could overcome. A Washington parenting plan often includes specific provisions directing which days a child will reside with each parent, visitation during school holidays and breaks, and other day-to-day scheduling issues. When in-person schools were closed, many of these scheduling directives went out the window. Children often stayed with whichever parent could work from home or arrange supervision while they attended remote classes. Non-custodial parents who lived far away simply relinquished their visitation plans as no-fly orders were put in place and interstate travel was grounded.
Now that school has resumed, and travel is allowed, parents should return to the residential parenting time and visitation schedules set forth in the parenting plan. Failure to do so could result in a finding of contempt of court since parenting orders are enforceable court orders. However, if parents can agree to make modifications to the parenting plan reflecting their updated custodial preferences, they may be able to do so by filing a petition with the family courts. If there has been a significant change in their situation that may warrant an update, the court may agree to a parent’s proposed modification even over the other’s objection.
Making Up for Lost Time
Washington family courts have encouraged parents to do their best to communicate and work out arrangements to get through the pandemic, assuring parents that once restrictions were lifted, they would be entitled to make up visitation time. For families with parents who live outside the immediate area, children may have missed significant periods of visitation due to travel restrictions. Custodial parents may not be eager to give up their own parenting time now to make up for these lost periods, especially if it means not taking vacations or visiting family with their children during upcoming school breaks.
Family courts have jurisdiction to hear a parent’s petition to hold the other in contempt for their refusal to allow make-up visitation time or other non-compliance with your parenting plan’s terms. However, the governor and the courts continue to strongly urge parents to resolve these issues out of court. Parents who are unable to agree about what make-up visitation is fair or reasonable in their circumstances should investigate using a mediation service or other neutral third-party dispute resolution service. If each parent is represented by a family law attorney, their counsel can help negotiate an agreement that is acceptable to both clients.
Contact an Experienced Family Law Attorney
An attorney can be an effective advocate for the best interests of both you and your child during a custody dispute. Experienced family lawyers can empathize with your frustration, negotiate a workable compromise, and help diffuse volatile situations. They will help you understand your options for changing your Washington parenting plan, resolving outstanding visitation issues, and handling tense situations in the best possible way.