23 Jan What Dads Need To Know About Winning Full Custody
Divorce is always emotionally draining, but it’s especially traumatic whenever children are involved. When parents disagree on aspects like custody, support, and visitation, the divorce process can become a prolonged battle that makes everyone involved miserable.
Fathers are understandably apprehensive about child custody: for decades, courts seemed to automatically award custody to mothers, or at least create a presumption that mothers should have custody. Fathers faced an uphill battle overcoming that presumption, and proving to the courts not only that they loved their kids and wanted to be involved in their lives, but also that they were a better choice as the custodial parent.
Now, fathers have a fighting chance to win custody of their kids. It’s still not easy, but learning what dads need to know about winning full custody in Washington state can help prepare fathers for what lies ahead.
First, divorcing parents in Washington must file a “parenting plan” for court approval. The best outcome for the couple and the kids is when the parents can agree on the terms of the plan, including where the kids will live most of the time, how often they’ll visit with the non-custodial parent, and important decisions about their education, religious upbringing, and community involvement.
If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, each parent must make their case to the court about why they should be awarded custody.
The court will consider where the children have been living, who takes them to school, who takes them to medical or dental appointments, who does homework with the children after school, and any other parenting duties that you do. Therefore, it is a good idea to get records, documentation, or even pictures to show that it is best that children live with you full-time.
The courts generally do not want to make dramatic changes to the children’s schedules, so it is best to talk to an attorney about what will benefit you in maximizing your time with the children.
Legal vs. Physical Custody
There are two types of custody to be determined in a divorce: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody is the authority to make major life decisions for the minor children, such as medical care, education, religious upbringing, and in some cases, even recreational or extra-curricular activities. For example, if a child is an exceptionally talented musician or athlete, there may be important decisions to make about coaches, mentors, teachers, and camps.
Physical custody is exactly what it sounds like: it means where and with whom the child will live most of the time. With an award of sole custody, the child lives exclusively with one parent, and the other parent may or may not be awarded visitation. Visitation times could include weekends, mid-week overnights, or in the case of concerns about the child’s welfare, supervised visits for a specified time with the non-custodial parent in their home, or in a neutral location.
A parenting plan should discuss who has legal and/or physical custody, or both.
In the state of Washington, paternity is presumed for the fathers of children born to married couples up until 300 days after the marriage ends. Unmarried dads must prove they are the father of a child or children when they are seeking custody of them. Adoptive fathers are acknowledged as fathers, and the unmarried mother of the child can sign a document acknowledging the father’s parentage, which will have the same force as a determination of paternity.
Your attorney and the court will want to see a paternity affidavit or birth certificate to show that you are the father. If you have any stepchildren or any other special circumstances that apply to your situation, it is necessary to speak with an attorney to determine what your options are as the father.
Best Interest of the Children
As in most other states, courts regard the best interests of the children as the primary determining factor in awarding custody. Factors they may consider in Washington state include the following.
Ability To Provide
The means to provide basics like food and shelter, education, and care that ensures the child’s well-being is an important factor in determining parental rights. An unemployed parent living in a decrepit, rented home will be at a disadvantage against an employed parent who owns a well-kept home.
The court will consider the safety of the environment a parent can provide when awarding custody. A parent who abuses drugs or alcohol, who has been convicted of domestic violence or sex offenses, or whose behavior has otherwise required the involvement of a child welfare agency isn’t going to be granted custody.
A mother is more likely to be awarded custody of a nursing infant and the infant’s siblings in view of the children’s developmental needs. If there are children with special needs, the parent who has demonstrated involvement in and responsibility for seeking the types of services and accommodations the child needs will have a substantial advantage in a custody dispute.
However, if the mother struggles with mental illness or addiction, the safety of the infant may be an issue that sways a court to award custody to the father.
If an award of custody would upend a child’s life, requiring them to change schools, move far away from their other parent, or lose contact with siblings, extended family, or community activity, the courts will lean toward maintaining the status quo.
Primary Care Provider
Stay-at-home Dads who have been responsible for meal preparation, getting the kids ready for and transporting them to and from school, medical appointments, and extra-curricular activities can demonstrate that they have been their children’s primary caregivers. This gives them a good argument for being awarded full custody.
Relationships With Each Parent
Where children are old enough to speak for themselves, the court will weigh the child’s wishes and their relationship with each parent in its decision. Where a child clearly prefers one parent over the other, or is obviously afraid of or dislikes the other parent, the court may follow the child’s wishes regarding where they will live after the parents divorce.
A parent’s mental and physical health may factor into a custody decision. If a parent is unable to care for children due to a mental health condition, intellectual disability, or physical incapacity, the court may favor a healthy father over an unwell mother.
It’s important to note that disability alone isn’t reason enough to award custody to the able parent; rather, it must be proven that the health concern materially affects the parent’s ability to care for the child.
Making the Best Case for Custody
The best way a father can build a case for custody is by simply being a good father. This means fully being involved in the children’s lives, from attending school meetings and plays, knowing doctor’s and dentist’s names and attending appointments, contributing financially toward the child’s needs, and treating the child’s mother with respect.
Fathers should document their involvement in their children’s lives, from taking pictures to saving school projects to preserving emails that prove communication with teachers and medical professionals (redacted to protect the child’s privacy, of course). Responsible and involved fathers should also be able to name their children’s friends and their favorite foods.
Father’s rights have come a long way since old gender stereotypes and roles have evolved past the 1950s fantasy of stay-at-home Moms vacuuming in high heels and pearls, meeting Dad at the door with a cocktail as he returns from a long day at the office. Dads have become equal partners in children’s upbringing, and in many cases, they have assumed the primary caregiver role.
Divorcing dads should seek top legal representation to argue their case for custody so they know what they can do to increase their chances of winning full custody. Contact LaCoste Family law’s father’s rights attorneys in Washington state to discuss your case. We stand ready to help fathers stand up for their rights to stay involved in their children’s lives, including being awarded full physical and legal custody.