New law allows divorcing parents to craft plan outside of court

Governor Jay Inslee signed a new law on May 3 that will allow couples to negotiate their divorce without appearing in court. Advocates for the Uniform Collaborative Law Act say it's an important development in Washington family law because it allows couples to agree on terms without any party feeling like a winner or loser.

Under the new law, couples can hire their own lawyers for negotiation purposes and other outside professionals like mental health experts and child specialists for consultation. If the negotiations break down and the couple has to go to court, the details of the failed negotiation cannot be used by either party in the courtroom. Experts say that assurance of confidentiality allows couples to negotiate parenting plans and custody arrangements in good faith.

Reducing the need for parenting plan modifications

The new law is especially helpful for divorcing parents because it provides them with greater flexibility in crafting a parenting plan that works. This may reduce the need for a parenting plan modification later. The state of Washington is notoriously difficult for modifying parenting plans, so it's important to structure a mutually agreeable plan from the beginning.

Sometimes, however, modifications are necessary. The most common modifications come from the natural growth of children and the changing lives of their parents. Children often become involved in new activities and adapt to new schedules. Parents may take on a new work schedule or move to a new area. In these cases, the initial parenting plan may not work anymore.

In more serious cases, the original plan may endanger the child's health and safety. One parent may have taken on bad habits or acquired an unhealthy set of new friends that threaten the child's well-being.

Whether the modification is requested for convenience or out of concern for the child's best interests, Washington law encourages courts to show deference to the original plan. Parents can successfully modify a plan, but they must navigate what can be a confusing process.

Requesting a modification

The modification process depends on the nature of the modification that is being requested. Washington classifies modifications into two categories: major and minor. Courts can approve minor modification at their discretion.

A modification is minor if it does not change the child's permanent residence, doesn't change the original plan by more than 24 days per year or is required because of a parent's change in work schedule. Minor modifications follow a faster process and are more likely to be approved if both parents agree to the plan.

Major modifications are any changes that fall outside of the guidelines listed above. Major modifications require an adequate cause hearing in which the parent requesting the modification must show evidence that supports why the child would benefit from the change to the plan.

Parents attempting to modify a parenting plan can benefit from working with a family law attorney. An experienced attorney can guide a parent requesting a change through the modification process. An attorney can also help a parent who has not requested a change protect their custodial rights against a baseless modification request.

Of course, the best way to avoid the modification process is to craft an initial parenting plan that works for all parties involved. Under the new Uniform Collaborative Law Act, an experienced family law attorney can work with divorcing parents and other consultative professionals to do just that.