Objectives of a Parenting Plan (RCW 26.09.184)
The objectives and contents of a permanent Parenting Plan are identified in RCW 26.09.184(1): “The objectives of the permanent parenting plan are to: (a) Provide for the child’s physical care; (b) Maintain the child’s emotional stability; (c) Provide for the child’s changing needs as the child grows and matures, in a way that minimizes the need for future modifications to the permanent parenting plan; (d) Set forth the authority and responsibilities of each parent with respect to the child, consistent with the criteria in RCW 26.09.187 and 26.09.191; (e) Minimize the child’s exposure to harmful parental conflict; (f) Encourage the parents, where appropriate under RCW 26.09.187 and 26.09.191, to meet their responsibilities to their minor children through agreements in the permanent parenting plan, rather than by relying on judicial intervention; and (g) To otherwise protect the best interests of the child consistent with RCW 26.09.002.”
Custody and Visitation (RCW 26.09.187(3)(a))
“The court shall make residential provisions for each child which encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable, and nurturing relationship with the child…. The court shall consider the following factors: (i) The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent; (ii) The agreements of the parties…; (iii) Each parent’s past and potential for future performance of parenting functions …including whether a parent has taken greater responsibility for performing parenting functions relating to the daily needs of the child; (iv) The emotional needs and developmental level of the child; (v) The child’s relationship with siblings and with other significant adults, as well as the child’s … physical surroundings … (vi) The wishes of the parents and the wishes of a child who is sufficiently mature … ; and (vii) Each parent’s employment schedule … Factor (i) shall be given the greatest weight.”
The Court’s Guiding Principles Regarding Custody
The following principles have consistently guided the courts: 1) Each case must be considered upon its own facts and peculiar situation. 2) The best interests of the children are the paramount consideration for the Court. The parents’ own personal interests in child custody are subsidiary. 3) The Court should give careful consideration to the character traits, emotional maturity, economic ability, and stability of both parents. 4) Trial courts have broad discretion in custody matters. Factors to be considered in evaluating the needs of the children, and the strengths and weaknesses of each parent, can be more accurately evaluated at trial. Only the trial judge has the distinct advantage of seeing and hearing witnesses, and determining their reliability and credibility. See, e.g., Silverton v. Silverton, 71 Wn.2d 276, 427 P.2d 1001 (1967); and Lines v. Lines, 75 Wn.2d 489, 451 P.2d 914 (1969).
The Best Interests of the Child
Above all other considerations, the best interests of the children are controlling when the Court renders a decision on residential placement of the children. RCW 26.09.187 (3); In re Parentage of J.H., 112 Wn.App. 486, 49 P.3d 154 (2002); and In re Marriage of Possinger, 105 Wn.App. 326, 19 P.3d 1109 (2001). The Parenting Plan should be fashioned to protect children from harmful exposure to parental conflict. RCW 26.09.002, and RCW 26.09.184 (1) (e); In re Marriage of Jensen-Branch, 78 Wn.App. 482, 899 P.2d 803 (1995).
The Role of the Guardian ad Litem
The trial court often finds that the report of the Guardian ad Litem is most helpful in resolving these issues. The GAL’s role is to investigate and report factual information to the Court regarding the circumstances of the children, and the strengths and weaknesses of each parent. GAL’s are authorized to make a recommendations regarding custody and visitation based upon this investigation. RCW 26.12.175 (1) (b). However, the ultimate obligation for resolving custody issues resides solely with the trial court. RCW 26.12.175; RCW 26.09.220 (1); Dugger v. Lopez, 142 Wn.App. 110, 173 P.3d 967 (2007).
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