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When do Washington courts award sole decision-making authority?

On Behalf of | Jan 6, 2023 | Child Custody

Most of the time, when parents in Washington get divorced, they end up with mutual decision-making authority. In other states, this is what you might call “legal custody,” and it’s effectively the parents’ right to have a say in key decisions, such as education, health care and religious upbringing.

However, “most of the time” is not “always.” There are situations when the court may believe your child’s best interests do not allow mutual decision-making. Here are some of the situations that may prompt the court to steer away from mutual decision-making.

The parents agree on a different plan

According to the state’s standards for parenting plans, courts can approve parenting plans in which the parents choose not to share mutual decision-making authority. However, these plans still need to meet certain requirements:

  • Follows any limitations meant to protect the child from abandonment, abuse and domestic violence
  • The parents enter the agreement knowingly and willingly

Notably, plans that grant one parent sole decision-making authority over one or more issues do not limit the other parent’s ability to make decisions about the child’s day-to-day care. During the time your child is with your ex, your ex still makes those day-to-day decisions. Likewise, plans that grant one parent sole decision-making authority for health care do not prevent you from caring for your child during medical emergencies.

Three requirements for sole decision-making

Shared decision making is the norm, but the law identifies three situations in which sole decision-making authority might be more appropriate:

  • When the law restricts one parent’s ability to hold decision-making authority
  • Both parents refuse to share mutual decision making
  • The court finds that one parent’s opposition to mutual decision-making is warranted per a review of four key factors

It’s worth remembering that Washington generally finds it in a child’s best interests to maintain good relationships with both parents. Even if both parents refuse to share decision-making authority, they’re likely to share residential provisions, commonly known as parenting time. Accordingly, you’re likely to stay in contact with your ex for a long time. Battling over decision-making authority may make things harder down the road, so it’s best to choose your battles carefully.

What the courts review

Washington law instructs the courts to review four factors before making any decisions about decision-making authority:

  • Any mandatory limitations on a parent’s decision-making authority
  • Each parent’s historical involvement in the decision-making process
  • The amount that the parents are willing to cooperate with each other to make decisions about their child’s education, health care and religious upbringing
  • Whether the physical distance between the parents’ homes could hinder their ability to make timely decisions

If the court makes any decision based on these factors, it must not assume that you are more or less qualified because of your sex. Instead, the court will weigh the evidence you provide to support your argument. Then, when the court makes its decision, it must write its findings and reasoning into the record.

A good plan is about more than your rights

Ultimately, your goal should be to work toward a parenting plan that best serves your child’s needs and development. This doesn’t just mean focusing on what the law allows. It means focusing on the different ways you can address what you know is best for your child.

A good plan will address more than your decision-making authority. It will also address your child’s schedule and the ways you and your ex can best resolve any disputes. It is sometimes a challenge to work toward a better plan, but your decision-making rights are only the beginning, not the final word.