Modifications: Custody, Visitation, Child Support

What is a Modification?  

Once a final court order is entered, it is presumed to be the last and final order ever unless a party files a modification petition seeking a change in the final order. The easiest modification involves the agreement of the parties. If one party contest a modification, then the legal process becomes extremely complicated. Various types of modifications include:

Parenting Plan Modifications (Custody and Visitation):

The Court considers your final Parenting Plan to be “written in stone.”  This is why your Plan needs to be comprehensive and needs to address any issues that come up as the children grow older. If you desire to make a change in the original Parenting Plan, you must, at minimum, show the court that there has been a substantial change in circumstances regarding the child or either parent since the entry of the final Plan. The change in circumstances must be serious and involve facts not known to the court or to the parties at the time the original plan was entered.

Filing a Petition to Modify the primary custody of the child from one parent to the other is the most difficult. The court presumes that it is in the child’s best interest to retain continuity in placement, education and neighborhood unless the primary parent poses a serious physical, emotional or psychological risk to the child’s well-being. Examples of this include the arrest and conviction of the primary parent, chronic substance abuse of the parent which results in neglect and harm to the child, physical abusiveness to the child or to a new partner, and mental deterioration of a parent such that they cannot adequately nurture and meet the child’s needs.

Filing a Petition to Modify the visiting parent’s residential time is particularly difficult if the relief sought is to restrict or suspend that parent’s visitation.  The burden of proof is high. The court weighs the risk to the child versus the child’s need to have contact with both parents. One basis for restricting or conditioning a parent’s visitation occurs when that parent does not visit the child for a long period of time, then comes back in the picture asking for the regular visitation set forth in the original Plan. In cases like these, the court may order reunification counseling between the child and the absent parent.

There are several ways in which a Parenting Plan can be subject to a minor modification that does not result in a drastic change in the residential time or involves a change in the manner of transportation, dispute resolution or clarification as to decision making.

Child Support Modifications:

Child support modifications are less arduous in the sense that the court expects that parents’ incomes and the child’s needs will change over the course of the child’s life. Final child support orders may be reviewed in a year if there is a substantial change of circumstances in the income of the parties, however it is more common that modifications are brought in 3 years after entry of the final orders.

If the paying parent’s income increases or decreases over a period of time – not just a month or two –, then upon that parent’s petition to modify their support obligation will be reviewed by the court and the support amount recalculated pursuant to the Washington State Child Support guidelines. If a child develops special needs that require additional support or if the paying parent becomes disabled and cannot work, these are facts that could support a modification