Understanding Child Custody for Fathers in Washington
Beyond blatant issues like abuse and neglect, the courts will consider a number of other concerns to determine what is in “the best interest of the child,” even things like how close both parties’ residences are to each other, when custody is being argued. They are not likely to support a joint custody parenting plan if its implementation doesn’t seem feasible. Even though the legal system has become more cognizant of factors showing the importance of father involvement, the bias that children are better off with their mothers can still exist. If you want custody beyond 50/50, or want to win primary residential custody, the burden is going to be on you to prove why that is the best situation for your kids.
Additionally, if there is already a Parenting Plan in existence, the court is unlikely to consider or make any change in custody, unless you can show that there has been a “substantial change in circumstances” since the time the existing Parenting Plan went into effect.
Primary Residential Custody
Primary Residential Custody refers to where (or with which parent) the children will live the majority of the time. Courts like to take the route that will cause the least amount of stress and disturbance to the children involved when making their determination for residential placement.
Let’s say, for example, you live in Seattle and your kids go to school and participate in after school programs in Seattle. Your ex, on the other hand, lives in Tacoma. If your ex were to ask the court for residential custody in Tacoma, without good reason, the judge would not likely want to put the children through the burden of reintegrating into a new school and new programs. They want to keep the kids’ lives as stable as possible for as long as possible. Unless there is enough evidence to show the current situation is negatively impacting the kids’ emotional state, education, and well being, it is unlikely that a judge will rule to change the existing circumstances.
If you are in the situation where a change needs to happen, you need to recognize that arguing for change will be extremely difficult unless there is substantial evidence to support your position. The best way to position yourself to win custody, in this situation, is to minimize the impact to the kids. Living within their school district and participating in getting the children to and from after school activities would help alleviate the concern of reintegration for the court. Simply reducing the burden on the children involved, however, will not guarantee you win your case.
The Burden of Proof
Proving that there is a need for the father or mother to have full custody or that a change to a current parenting plan is warranted, isn’t as simple as it may seem. We often have first hand experience dealing with our ex, but you can’t just tell the judge that they are an unfit parent. This means that you will need to be able to corroborate meaningful accusations.
Preparing for a custody fight should be like preparing for any other kind of important battle: you should be purposeful and well prepared. This all starts with keeping impeccable records of everything, including such things as emails, text messages, and calendar notes on missed visitation and other important events, school records, doctor visits, etc. Fully understand your goals, what it will take to achieve them, and the consequences of your actions.
If you are claiming that the other parent has a mental health, alcohol, or substance abuse problem, you need evidence to prove it. This can come from third party witness statements and from your declarative statement to the court. Having these statements, however, does not guarantee that they will be considered valid concerns. You will need to recognize that some of your concerns as a father may be more dire to you than the court. Judges deal with difficult circumstances every day that involve issues like drug addictions, domestic violence, and child abuse. This can make situations involving far less extreme variables seem like pithy arguments to the court. It is your job, with your attorney, to present your case in a way that the court understands the specific importance to your particular children.
Depending on the complexities of your particular situation, it may also be necessary for a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) to become involved. A GAL is appointed to investigate the needs of the child and to report their findings to the court. Additionally, other professionals such as counselors, child psychologists, physicians and school officials may be needed to testify in order for the court to have a good understanding of what is in the best interest of child.
Representing Information to the Courts
To avoid looking like you are in a tit-for-tat situation, you need to be clear and address the issues that matter to the court. Your declarative statement is your chance to talk to the judge or commissioner prior to your hearing and it should be constructed to convey your character as well as the severity of the situation. Clouding the statement with unnecessary jabs at the other side will not help your case. You must be clear and honest about the situation and be ready to defend any accusations you make. Your credibility should never come into question as it will only undermine you claims.
The same approach should be used for any third party statements you gather. Statements that only come from your friends that have a biased tone (like they talk about how much they’ve never liked your ex) will diminish their validity with the court. They should contain the facts of the situation they are meant to represent.
Other evidence that can be provided are things like screenshots of messages, emails, social media posts, letters, or anything else that comes directly from your ex. Screen shots of a text message conversation can be incredibly useful and courts do take them seriously. But, if you are using such messages to convey an abusive relationship, you cannot both be using foul language. If she says “You’re a piece of Sh*t” and you respond with “F**k you, b**ch” you are both in the wrong. Any of the evidence you use to call in to question someone’s character or decision making should not be either easily refuted or be shown to be the behavior or actions of which you are also participating.
Fathers Winning Custody
Disputed cases can be difficult, both physically and emotionally, and expensive. Taking a structured approach to identifying all the potential issues with your particular case and finding ways to address them is the first step to success. Your actions, character, and motivations will be called into question. Take every step you can to leave yourself in a position where there isn’t much for the other side to attack and what they can attack is defensible. Identify the residential and custodial concerns that the courts address and do your best to get in front of them. The more you are demanding the court change, the more you will have to show cause.
It is not reasonable to expect that the other parent will be eliminated from the equation totally, except in very dangerous scenarios. So, it makes sense that your plan for change in custody should include some aspects of co-parenting that will benefit the kids.
Finally, in the same way that the court’s primary consideration will be the “best interests of the child(ren)”, it should be yours as well; in the eyes of the court, this means trying to have dads and moms both involved. Make sure your motivation and your actions are well aligned with what is going to be best for your children. Keep those goals in mind and, hopefully, you will be successful.
Divorce Lawyers for Men™ is a Washington state network of attorneys providing legal services and advocating for fathers in divorce and on-going custody and parenting issues.