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Issues Related to Children in Washington Divorces

Matters related to children are often the most contentious aspects of a divorce.  Ideally, parents will work together to reach a mutually agreeable arrangement regarding custody, decision-making, and support.  When the parties cannot agree, however, the court may have to decide these issues based on factual findings and statutory requirements.

GavelA Washington appeals court recently considered several issues related to parenting in a recent case. A temporary order granted equal residential time, appointed a guardian ad litem, and authorized joint decision-making.  A subsequent stipulated order stated the parties agreed to update each other on the child’s health and follow the recommendations of his health care providers.  Following the trial, however, the trial court entered an order limiting the father’s residential time based on findings of abusive use of conflict, neglect, and not acting in the child’s best interest.

The trial court determined the father’s net monthly income was more than $15,000, while the mother’s was less than $400, making the combined income greater than the top support schedule tier.  RCW 26.19.020.  The trial court ordered a transfer payment of $3,000 per month, which was greater than the amount provided in the statute.  The husband appealed the child support order and the parenting plan.

Parenting plan

RCW 26.09 limits the trial court’s discretion in restricting parental conduct through a parenting plan unless evidence shows the parent’s conduct may adversely affect the child’s best interests.  Under RCW 26.09.191, the court may consider neglect or substantial nonperformance of parenting functions, abusive use of conflict creating a serious danger to the child’s psychological development, and other factors the court expressly finds to be adverse to the child’s best interest.

The father argued the evidence did not support the restrictions, but the appeals court disagreed.  The husband had been cited for leaving his child unattended in a vehicle when the temperature was 81 degrees.  The court also found he failed to acknowledge his son’s behavioral and emotional problems and obstructed the mother’s ability to get the child therapy.  The husband testified he did not think the child needed therapy.  The appeals court found the evidence sufficiently supported the trial court’s finding of neglect.

The trial court found the father engaged in abusive use of conflict by failing to pay child support as ordered, refusing to discuss health care with the wife, getting new doctors for the child without telling the wife, threatening the child’s pediatrician in front of him, and disclosing the wife’s journals and private medical records without her permission. The appeals court found the record supported a finding that the husband failed to pay child support.  The husband testified to taking the child to health care providers without telling the wife.  The court also found support in the record that the husband had disclosed the wife’s journals and medical records.

The husband argued the findings did not support a conclusion that the child’s psychological development was endangered.  The pediatrician, however, testified she recommended counseling because the disruption in the family had a great impact on the child’s psychological well-being.  She also testified that the husband had threatened her if she did not take back the recommendation. The guardian ad litem testified that the husband yelled at the child’s therapist in front of the child.

The appeals court also considered the citation for leaving the child unattended in the car.  According to the police report, the husband threw himself on the ground and yelled and cried loudly.  There was testimony that a supervising officer told the husband to stop making a big scene in front of the son.

The trial court found that the husband had placed the son in different day cares for short periods and that this activity was expressly adverse to the child’s best interests.  The appeals court found sufficient evidence to support this finding.

The appeals court found sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s use of discretion to place restrictions on the husband’s residential time with his son.

Decision-making

The husband argued the trial court exceeded its authority in granting sole decision-making authority to the wife for certain specified subject matters because they were beyond the court’s authority under RCW 26.09.184(5)(a), which is limited to education, health care, and religious upbringing.  The appeals court, however, found that there was nothing limiting the court’s authority to the specified areas.

Residential placement

The husband also argued the court had not appropriately weighed the statutory factors and should have awarded primary residential placement to him.  The court is required to consider the strength, nature, and stability of the relationship between the child and each parent.  The court is also required to consider each parent’s past and potential future performance of specified parenting functions.  The relationship factor is given the greatest weight.

The husband argued the trial court had not considered the parents’ future ability to perform parenting functions, but the appeals court disagreed.  The appeals court found evidence that the trial court had considered future ability.  The appeals court also found substantial evidence the mother had shown good parenting skills, improved her mental health, and worked to address her son’s and her own challenges.

Child support

A trial court may exceed the standard calculation for child support for incomes greater than $12,000 net per month upon written findings of fact. RCW 26.19.020. The court must consider the child’s needs commensurate with the parents’ income, resources, and standard of living.  The findings must set forth why the amount is reasonable and necessary.  The court may consider the child’s special medical, educational, and financial needs.

The trial court found the child needed ongoing counseling, behavioral therapy, and educational support, and the deviation from the statutory amount was reasonable and necessary for that purpose.  The court also found the child had significant behavioral problems and may have undiagnosed ADHD and developmental delays.  He had been expelled from day care because of behavior issues.  The court found that the lack of stability and the conflict between his parents exacerbated the stress on the child and that he needed therapy and treatment in accordance with his pediatrician’s recommendations.

The husband argued the trial court’s findings were merely cursory and insufficient to support the award.  The appeals court, however, noted that the “special medical, education, or psychological needs of the child” is a factor specifically listed in case law and RCW 26.19.075.  The trial court had considered the child’s psychological needs and made detailed findings supporting future therapy.  The appeals court determined those findings were sufficient to support an award deviating from the standard calculation, but without estimates of cost for the treatment, they were insufficient to support the amount actually awarded.  The appeals court reversed and remanded to the trial court to determine a reasonable and necessary child support award, based on estimates of the cost of the child’s special needs.

As this case shows, there are many complex issues that must be addressed when couples with children divorce.  The high-asset divorce attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC can assist you with these issues and more.  Call us at (206) 622-6562 or contact us online to discuss your case.

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