The breakup of a relationship is never easy, but it becomes even more complicated when children are involved. Navigating co-parenting can be challenging when child custody issues come into play. Many fathers in child custody disagreements feel that they are at a disadvantage due to the widespread assumption that mothers are favored in a child custody case. There are many factors that a judge considers before awarding custody to either parent. An experienced family law attorney can help you navigate the process and set expectations, but here are some things to keep in mind as you pursue physical custody of your child in Washington State.
An important thing to know is that Washington State no longer refers to legal custody agreements. That phrase is quickly becoming outdated in favor of the term “parenting plan,” which is what determines the residential schedule for the children involved. This change in terminology puts both parents on a more equal playing field in terms of parental rights and parenting time. The intention of the court is to create the best possible solution for a child whose parents are no longer together, preferably with equal parenting time. Family court judges are obligated to make the best decision for the child, regardless of the gender of the parent.
There are many factors that are considered when establishing a legal parenting plan and the gender of the parent is not one of these factors in Washington State. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some factors that do hold weight in family court.
If the parents have worked through mediation or made an informal parenting agreement together, the judge will take this into consideration especially if it appears to be working in the child’s favor.
Ability to provide
Because the well-being of the child is the primary concern, the judge will carefully weigh each parent’s ability to provide adequate food, shelter, education, and other factors that contribute to child well-being. If one parent is employed and owns a home, while the other is unemployed and living in a space that is deemed unsafe, then the parent that can provide the most stability is going to be the obvious choice.
Addressing developmental needs
The court will look at what the child needs for their age and development. For example, in the case of a nursing newborn, a judge may be hesitant to give the father primary custody over the mother because of the mother’s ability to feed the baby. However, if the mother is dealing with ongoing drug addiction or problems that make her unable to safely care for the baby, the father’s ability to provide a safe and stable home could be prioritized over the nursing relationship because of the overall effect on the baby’s well-being.
If there has been a history of child abuse or domestic violence of any kind in the relationship, it is the court’s responsibility to ensure the physical safety of the child. A court will not put children in the care of an abusive parent, or in a situation where they will witness domestic violence or child abuse toward other minors in the home.
This can also extend to protecting the children from a parent that struggles with chemical dependence, has current criminal convictions, or whose life choices have required child welfare services to be involved in the past. The court will consider all factors that can negatively affect child well-being post-divorce.
There are no hard and fast rules to any of these areas. Parenting plans are highly specific and dependent upon a wide array of variables that can extend beyond what is listed above.
In order to establish what type of parenting plan would work best for your situation, an experienced family lawyer will interview all parties involved. The goal is to find out how each party feels about their role in raising the child and whether there are any concerns regarding safety or health. If one parent has experienced domestic violence at the hands of their partner then the court could award immediate temporary custody to the safer parent until the abuse ends or an investigation has been completed.
There are a few additional factors that are worth noting. While it is true that fathers have equal parenting rights with mothers in Washington State, in the case of unmarried parents the biological father does have to take the additional step of proving paternity in order to exercise those rights.
Proving paternity is the first step that a father must take to protect their parenting rights if they are not married to their child’s mother and the relationship comes to an end. Unmarried fathers do not have legal rights and cannot pursue a parenting plan until they prove that they are the biological father.
There are a few ways to legally establish paternity. The first is to have both parents sign a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity. If this was not done at the hospital or birth center when the child was born, then the form can be requested from the Division of Child Support office and submitted to the Center of Health Statistics for Washington State at any time after the birth of the child.
After the paperwork is processed the father’s name can be added to the birth certificate, which establishes legal paternity. If there is a conflict between parents that makes them unable to come to a mutual agreement about signing the voluntary acknowledgement of paternity, the father has the right to file a motion with the court known as a Petition to Establish Parentage.
One final factor to take into consideration is that parents who work with an experienced family law attorney have a greater likelihood of receiving primary care or equal parenting time with their child in the parenting plan as compared to parents who don’t have a lawyer and choose to self-represent.
Torrone Law Firm is committed to fighting for your family and protecting your rights as a parent. While going through a divorce and agreeing on a parenting plan can be challenging, our compassionate lawyers will work in the best interests of you and your children.