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Modifying a Parenting Plan in Washington: A 30,000-Foot View

Image of a Mom and Dad's legs on either side of a toddler's legs - standing on pavement
Posted on June 24, 2024 by Will Reingold

You have a child with another person—either an ex-partner, ex-spouse, or someone with whom you never actually had a romantic relationship. You’ve gone through the court system and agreed upon or litigated a final parenting plan and child support order. You’ve been trying to coparent under the terms of the parenting plan for some time; but now, for whatever reason, you think the current plan isn’t in your child’s best interest. What does the process for changing (a/k/a modifying) a parenting plan look like?

To begin, you need to be aware that it is deliberately difficult to modify a parenting plan. There are three ways a parenting plan can be changed: (1) by agreement, (2) by a petition to modify, and (3) by temporary order.[1] Naturally, an agreement is probably unlikely unless both parents think the plan is unworkable. For a petition to modify, these are disfavored by the courts because unnecessary custody-related litigation is deemed harmful and disruptive to the child at issue. Children have an “interest in finality,”[2] so courts presume that the child’s best interests are not served by modifications or continued judicial intervention once the parenting plan is entered.[3] All of this is to say that there is usually an uphill battle when modifying a parenting plan; just because one (or both) of the parents do not like the plan does not mean that a modification will be successful.

Step 1: Move for Adequate Cause. After you file a petition to modify the parenting plan, you will need to establish what is known as “adequate cause,”[4]or the reason why the change is necessary and justified. You do not get to simply proceed to trial to modify your parenting plan; rather, you must first prove to the court that you have adequate reasons to justify a modification. If you cannot demonstrate adequate cause, your case is dismissed.[5]

So, what is the standard for adequate cause? One case defined it as follows: “The burden of showing adequate cause requires more than allegations that if proved true, would establish a prima facie case supporting modification.”[6] “[T]o overcome the presumption against modification,” the moving party “must set forth facts and provide supporting evidence—not self-serving or conclusory statements—to establish adequate cause to schedule a hearing on the petition to modify.”[7] A moving parent must also provide the court with “new or previously unknown facts that a substantial change has occurred in the circumstances of the child or the nonmoving party and evidence sufficient to establish each fact the moving party must prove to modify the parenting plan.”[8] In other words, you cannot reassert facts that were already known to you or the court prior to the parenting plan being entered.

Step 2: Going to Trial. If you are able to show adequate cause, then you get to move onto the second step of the process: “the court may then modify the existing parenting plan if it finds that (1) a substantial change occurred in circumstances as they were previously known to the court, (2) the present arrangement is detrimental to the child’s health, (3) modification is in the child’s best interest, and (4) the change will be more helpful than harmful to the child. RCW 26.09.260(1), (2)(c).”[9]

The astute reader will notice that the quote above is written in qualified, not absolute, language. That means that even if you make it past the adequate cause stage, you are not guaranteed to have the Court change your parenting plan. You still must show all four elements listed in the statute. There is ample case law delving into these elements that a lawyer can point you to. For example, one court found that a mother successfully demonstrated there was a substantial change of circumstances where she entered graduate school, and this decision to go back to school made the existing custody schedule impractical.[10] Other situations are somewhat obvious, like if one parent is suddenly abusing or neglecting the children.

Conclusion. There are a lot of nuances to parenting plan modifications that have been left out of the foregoing summary. For instance, there is a critical (though sometimes opaque) distinction between a major modification and a minor modification.[11] If you have questions about how to modify your parenting plan or, conversely, if you are being faced with a parent who has filed a parenting plan modification against you, reach out to a family law attorney at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson PLLC for assistance.

[1] In re Marriage of Christel, 101 Wn. App. 13, 22 (2000).

[2] In re Parentage of Jannot, 149 Wn.2d 123, 127 (2003).

[3] See In re Custody of Halls, 126 Wn. App. 599, 607 (2005).

[4] RCW 26.09.270.

[5] In re Parentage of M.F., 141 Wn. App. 558, 571 (2007).

[6] In re Marriage of MacLaren, 8 Wn. App. 2d 751, 774 (2019).

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 753.

[9] In re Marriage of Zigler & Sidwell, 154 Wn. App. 803, 809 (2010).

[10] Bower v. Reich, 89 Wn. App. 9, 18 (1997).

[11] In re Marriage of Payne, 82 Wn. App. 147, 150–51 (1996).