10.50 Washington State legislation makes it compulsory for a parenting plan to be filed, either individually or jointly, 30 days before trial or within 180 days from the filing of the divorce, whichever first occurs. A standard parenting plan form must be completed, which deals with parental responsibility for the school year, holidays, birthdays and other major events. Decision making in the areas of education, religion and medical decisions must be outlined. In addition, parents must indicate which choice of dispute resolution they wish to opt for if there are future conflicts. This includes court, mediation and counselling. They can name the specific agency or person who will assist them to resolve the disputes.
10.51A research study found that mediation was the option for 56% of parents, the court process for 16%, and counselling for 7%. 29% of parents named a specific agency or person.1119 Over 50% of parents went beyond the minimum information required. Usually decision making on child care issues was added. Parents opted for shared decision making in 56% of plans, solely to the mother in 35% of plans, and solely to the father in 9% of the plans. Primary residence with the mother dropped from 79% to 70% after the law went into effect. For fathers, it dropped from 18% to 10%. Shared residency on “a somewhat equal basis” increased from 3% to 20%.
10.52The family lawyers were asked in the research study whether levels of parental conflict had changed since the adoption of parenting plans. 60% felt there was improvement and it helped parents focus on the needs of the children. 40% said there was no change.
Parenting plans as a mediatory process
10.53Parenting plans can be seen as a mediatory process, as they are more likely to have been reached in mediation or by the joint agreement of the parties, but cannot be imposed by the court. There has been a shift into parenting plans as they have the advantage of being detailed and specifically tailored to the needs of a particular family.
10.54Benjamin and Irving suggested a standardised evaluation process to ensure that parenting plans are fair and reasonable. If parents initially disagree on the formulation of a parenting plan, the system needs to really check that the parents cannot agree, as an initial refusal to consider settlement may at a later stage turn into a receptivity towards settlement. Mediation should be offered. If this did not resolve the dispute an assessment would explore the involvement of both parents in child care and generally identify the family’s positive and negative features. Then an interim parenting plan should be tried for 12 months. It would then be finalised after appropriate adjustment.1120
Children’s interests in mediation
1119 Tompkins refers at 294 to a research study by Ellis reported in the Michigan Journal of Law Reform, vol. 24-1 of 1990, (no title supplied).
1120 Family Mediation: Contemporary Issues, (1995) at 457-8.