You won’t find the term custody (whether physical custody or legal custody) in a Washington State Parenting Plan and - it is intentional.
Parenting Plans are focused on the children. Terms like custody refer to a parent’s right rather than parenting children. For most Washington State Parenting Plans, the components of the document will define where the children live, when they spend time with each parent, and how parents make decisions about children.
Occasionally, there may be a need to protect the children or restrict a parent to safeguard the children’s well-being – which may be included on some Parenting Plans but is not discussed here.
A Parenting Plan may come about through a variety of legal actions including legal separation, divorce, or paternity/parentage. Either way, a Parenting Plan is focused on the children.
As the name suggests, a Parenting Plan is an action plan. It describes parenting time and often defines how parents will handle decision making, transportation, vacations, holidays, and even disagreements.
Parenting Time. In our state’s recently updated family law forms, parenting time can be broken down into three sections – School Schedule (under-school age and school-age), Summer Schedule, and Holiday Schedule (which includes school breaks).
To better understand these terms, lets take a look at an an example of an agreed parenting plan and how the school, summer and holiday schedules (not custody or visations schedules) can interact.
Fictitious parents, Susan and James agree to a parenting plan for their two school-aged children. During the school year, the children spend most nights with James. On weekends, they spend Friday and Saturday nights first with one parent, then with the other parent the following weekend.
Each week, the children spend time with Susan for afterschool activities and dinner each Wednesday from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm.
Some might say that James is the "custodial parent" and that Susan has "visitation" every other weekend with a mid-week dinner visit. But, as you will see below, that is not the language used in the Parenting Plan and not an accurate description of the parenting roles.
The School Schedule might look like this:
James and Susan have always valued spending holidays together. Instead of following the school schedule or summer schedule (more on that later) and spending holidays with the children that happen to fall on their normal parenting time, they include a Holiday Schedule in their Parenting Plan.
James and Susan discussed how the school schedule and holiday schedule would interact with the school and summer schedules. They understood there would be times when the children would be with one parent several weekends in a row, but agreed that keeping the every other weekend schedule consistent made longer term scheduling easier.
With Mother’s Day approaching, James and Susan check the holiday section of their Parenting Plan.
The children spent the last weekend in April with James, so the children will spend the first weekend in May with Susan. With Mother’s Day, Susan has the children overnight three weekends in a row. Susan has the children:
May 4th – 6th under the Regular Schedule,
Mother’s Day weekend (11th – 13th) under the Holiday Schedule, and
May 18th – 20th under the Regular Schedule.
The parents also agreed to include a Summer Schedule in their Parenting Plan. Due to James’ work schedule and Susan’s ample vacation time, the children live with Susan during the week and most weekends over the summer. The children spend overnights with James on the first weekend of each month.
The children’s school year ends on Thursday, May 31st and the parents begin following the Summer Schedule. The children will celebrate Father’s Day and the 4th of July according the Holiday Schedule.
In June and July, the children live with Susan most of the month, while James has the children overnight on:
June 1st – 3rd under the Summer Schedule,
June 15th – 17th under the Holiday Schedule,
June 29th – July 4th under the Holiday Schedule, and
July 6th – 8th under the Summer Schedule.
Perhaps James considers taking the kids on an extended vacation from June 29 – July 8th when he notices his 4th of July time is very close to his 1st weekend of the month.
But we will save this deviation for another blog…
Parenting plans, like children and their parents, are unique.
Susan and James are following their parenting schedule, crafted especially for their dynamic. There is not a single parenting schedule (school, holiday, or summer) that will work for all children and parents.
When a parenting plan is action-focused and not custody-minded, it can serve as an instrument to organize around and prevent future conflict.
TLDR: Drop the terms custody and visitation for parenting time. Also, coming up with a parenting schedule can get a little tricky. School, Summer and Holiday schedules can interact in unexpected ways.