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Children Caught In The Crosshairs

Business couple with baby and another girl at table - DC Nguyen LawOne thing so many overlook in divorce litigation is the mental toll the process takes on any children that are caught in the middle. Many people focus solely on the spouses and the division of assets and liabilities, neglecting the long-term impact on their kids. It’s important to remember that children very often carry the emotional effects of a divorce well into their adult lives.

Children simply must receive any and all support they need. This could include therapy, counseling at school, or talking to a mental health professional. As an attorney, I do my utmost to inform my clients about the potential impact their actions may have on their children. I also recommend ways they can support their children’s emotional well-being as their divorce unfolds. They don’t always listen, but it’s far too important not to try to be a catalyst for something that can significantly impact a child that didn’t directly have anything to do with filing for a divorce. Ensuring that children have access to mental health resources can significantly aid in navigating the challenges of divorce and minimizing long-term emotional harm.

Here, we’ll focus on what the divorce process is like when children are entangled in the midst of a divorce in Washington, covering many of the peripheral issues, such as child custody and visitation.

Typical Custody Visitation Arrangements

Before a divorce is finalized, temporary custody and visitation arrangements are established with the children’s best interests in mind. The court prioritizes maintaining normalcy and consistency for children, not the comfort or convenience of parents.

When determining temporary custody and visitation arrangements, factors such as who performed primary parenting functions, including school drop-offs, preparing meals, enabling participation in extracurricular activities, and getting them to and from doctor’s appointments, are taken into account to determine the primary caregiver.

Based on these factors, the court typically aims to preserve the existing routine for the children as best it can. For example, if you were primarily responsible for school-related activities and helping your children do homework, you may continue in that role. The court then evaluates what residential schedule would be fair and feasible for the non-primary parent, taking into consideration factors such as weekends, weekdays, or alternating weeks.

Determining Custody

In Washington, the court examines who has historically been the primary parent as it determines custody. While both parents contributed to the child’s birth, the court looks at the actual caregiving roles each parent has played.

For instance, if you work long hours and are not as involved in daily parenting tasks as you maybe should be, the court is likely to favor the parent who has been more present and active in your child’s life. This means that custody is not automatically presumed to be a 50/50 arrangement. As is the case with temporary orders, the court’s primary concern is the child’s best interest, which often results in custody arrangements that reflect the status quo of parental involvement.

Ultimately, the goal is to minimize disruption and ensure stability for the children during the divorce process. Maintaining consistency in their routines and ensuring that their needs are met remain the considerations driving how the court makes its determination when temporary custody and visitation arrangements are on the table.

Input From Children

In Washington state, there isn’t a strict age at which a child’s input becomes sought after, let alone decisive, in custody decisions. However, the court does generally consider the child’s preferences more as they grow older. When children reach 13 in Washington, they can make certain personal healthcare decisions and authorize the release of their information to parents. The courts still view children at this age as minors, but there’s some form of a sweet spot here where it at least tends to seek out the opinion of the child.

The court does take a child’s input into consideration, especially if the child is mature enough to express a reasoned preference. However, the court balances this against the overall best interests of the child, which includes maintaining stability and ensuring proper care. For example, if a child prefers to live with a parent who offers fewer rules or incentives like video games, the court is unlikely to honor this preference if it compromises the child’s well-being and structure.

Typically, Washington courts consider children’s opinions around the ages of 9 to 16, but the final decision rests with the court and the parents, not the children. The court ensures that decisions are made based on the child’s best interests, not just their expressed preferences, to avoid situations where a child’s choice is influenced by temporary or less important factors.

In Washington, children are not authorized to testify in court proceedings. Instead, the court appoints a guardian ad litem to represent the children’s interests. If there are concerns about the safety or well-being of the children, either party can request the appointment of a guardian ad litem.

The guardian ad litem serves as a third-party advocate for the children and aims to recommend a parenting plan that is in their best interests. As part of their role, the guardian ad litem conducts interviews with the children to understand their perspectives and concerns. These interviews may be relayed to the court as part of the guardian ad litem’s recommendations. Additionally, the court may review other relevant records such as school and healthcare records.

Guardians ad litem serve as the voice of children caught in a divorce and ensure that their interests are represented effectively in the proceedings. This helps protect the children from being directly involved in the legal process and maintains their privacy and well-being.

It’s very possible a child has been coached by a parent. When children communicate something, attorneys and guardians ad litem need to be aware that one parent might have influenced the child’s statements. Experienced legal professionals can often tell when a child is being coached, but it’s vital to handle these situations delicately given all of the things at play.

Beyond The Courtroom

In child custody cases, while children themselves do not testify in court, it is common for attorneys to interact with them in various ways. As an attorney, I frequently receive letters and text messages, and engage in conversations with children. This provides them a space to express their feelings and concerns. However, I always make it clear to them that I cannot present this information to the court directly.

My goal in these interactions is to listen to children who are going through an incredibly difficult time and ensure they feel heard. If they have any issues, I refer them back to the guardian ad litem or a therapist.

Modifying Parenting Plans

Modifying a parenting plan is possible in theory, but in practice, it may be virtually impossible. Why? Doing so requires meeting a considerably high threshold. You can seek modifications at any time, but you must be able to clearly demonstrate to the court that there has been a substantial change in circumstances, as outlined in specific state statutes.

A substantial change typically involves significant shifts in the child’s well-being or safety. For example, instances such as allegations of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence, as well as situations where a parent fails to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities, can constitute substantial changes. These could include instances where a parent neglects to provide food, medical care, or education for the child, leading to serious consequences such as expulsion from school.

Another common reason for modification is relocation. If one parent plans to move to a different city or state due to work or other reasons, this change in circumstances can affect the existing parenting plan and may warrant modifications.

You need to understand though that not all changes will rise to the level of satisfying the criteria for modification. Routine changes such as a changing your job or your child expressing their ideal custody arrangement won’t likely be considered substantial enough to warrant modification.

For more information on Child Custody Visitation, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (425) 276-7390 today.

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