There are so many things to consider when determining custody and parenting plan arrangements for children. When a custody matter is particularly contentious, courts have to rely on some standard to base their decisions. The legislature recognized this when it drafted the statutory provisions that guide the courts in preparing parenting plans. Therefore, there are numerous factors the court will consider when determining which party a child will reside and the residential schedule of the child between the parties.
However, the legislature and the courts have also elevated one factor above all others to keep in mind when making custody determinations: Any decision must be in the best interests of the child. What is in the best interests of the child? Essentially, in Washington State, if both parents are fit and able, then the court considers the best interests of the child is to have both parents as involved as possible with the child. Further, it means crafting a living situation for the child that is in keeping with their age, development, and the family’s social and financial situation. The goal is to minimize the disruption and stress on the child. It is also designed, however, to maintain each parent’s constitutional right to have access to their child.
Although the best interests of the child is the overarching goal, the court also looks to other factors when determining the child’s primary residence. These factors include the strength and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent; any agreements the parents reached voluntarily between them; the potential of each parent’s performance of future parenting including their past performance of taking responsibility for the needs of the child; the developmental level and emotional needs of the child; any relationships the child may have with siblings or other significant adults, as well as school and other significant activities; the desires of the parents and the desires of the child provided the child is mature enough to express an independent and rational opinion; and, each parent’s employment schedule.
Of all of these factors, the strength and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent is usually given the greatest weight by the court. Other factors which can also come into play are the financial situation of each parent, each parent’s preference with respect to making decisions about the child, and the geographic proximity of the parents to each other.
When these factors cannot help the judge make a determination, such as in a situation where there is essentially no clear resolution, the statute does allow the court to award joint custody wherein a child frequently alternates residence between parents’ households for brief and substantially equal periods of time, so long as it is in the best interests of the child. The court may also consider the parties’ geographic proximity to ensure the ability of each party to share in the performance of parenting functions.