The Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that a parentage order is a custody decree that cannot be modified without adequate cause and a change of circumstances.
Background: In Parentage of C.M.F. the superior court issued a parentage order that designated an individual as the father, named C.M.F.’s mother “custodian solely for purpose of other state and federal statutes,” and confirmed that the mother’s home would continue to be C.M.F.’s primary residence. On a separate and subsequent petition from the father, the court created a parenting plan that designated the father’s residence as C.M.F’s primary home and named the father custodian for purposes of other state and federal statutes. The mother appealed.
Majority Opinion: The Supreme Court ruled that a parentage order is a “custody decree” because the two serve the same purpose: entrusting a child with an adult on whom legal responsibility for the child’s care is assigned. Here, the parentage order for C.M.F. was a custody decree that established primary custody and residence with the mother. Therefore, the family court erred by disrupting that status quo without requiring the father to show both adequate cause and a change of circumstances as required to modify a custody decree.
Dissent: The three dissenting Justices rejected the categorization of C.M.F’s parentage order as a custody decree because the custody provision was uncontested and the trial court did not conduct an independent evaluation of the relevant statutory factors
Commentary: This case may be viewed as a coda to the Supreme Court’s twin decisions in November 2013 regarding de facto parenthood. Like the previous opinions, the majority opinion emphasizes again that the law should recognize families as children see them. C.M.F. was not aware of the distinction between a parentage order and a custody decree, only that home was with the mother. If the father was to unsettle C.M.F.’s home life, the burden is on him to show that the change is justified – just as it would be had the custody decree been called a parenting plan.
As a result of this decision alleged fathers will be faced with a difficult, if not necessarily unfair, choice in parentage proceedings: they can try to avoid financial responsibility for the child or they can seek to enhance their parental rights. If the father is trying to avoid being labeled “Dad,” he will not be able to simultaneously argue (credibly) that, if he is the parent, the child will be better off with him rather than the mother. Once the parentage order confirms the mother’s primary parental role, it will be difficult for the newly minted father to get residential caretaker or custodial status in a later action.