Washington State Child Custody Laws and Parenting Plan

Learn how child custody is determined in Washington, how to modify custody orders, and more.

Washington Child Custody

If you’re in the midst of a divorce in the state of Washington and have minor children, you’ll need to address child custody issues.

In this guide, I’ll share an overview of Washington child custody laws and help you understand the process for establishing and modifying custody and visitation.

Types of Child Custody in Washington State

Washington child custody laws do not use the terms custody and visitation. Courts also don’t use the terms custodial parent or noncustodial parent. Instead, they opt to use a Parenting Plan as a means of deciding all parts of a child’s post-divorce relationship with each parent.

Generally, a parenting plan covers where children will live, with which parent, and how the parents will make decisions regarding the children.

Judges prefer that the parents create a parenting plan on which they agree. Most of the time, if the parents come up with a solution, the judges will sign off on it as long as it puts the child’s best interests first.

In determining the best interests of the children, a judge looks at each parent’s ability to:

  • Maintain a loving, stable relationship with the children
  • Provide for the children’s basic needs, such as feeding, clothing, physical care, health, grooming, health care, daycare, etc.
  • Be involved with the educational decisions and needs of the children
  • Exercise sound judgment
  • Financially support the children

A judge may also consider:

  • Which parent has made most of the decisions in the past
  • How cooperative the parents can be in the future
  • How far away the parents will be living from each other

As part of deciding which parent a child will live with, the judge will ask each parent to devise a schedule that includes where the children will be during the weekdays, weekends, holidays, birthdays, and vacations. Parenting plans must be specific and have transportation arrangements.

The judge must also decide whether a parenting plan provides the most loving and stable relationship between the children and each parent. The judge will likely grant more time to the parent who cared for the children’s daily needs before the parents filed for divorce.

In a conflicted divorce, parents who can’t agree to a parenting plan will go to trial, and the judge will decide the matter for them. The judge’s decision becomes a legally binding court order, and both parents must follow it.

If one parent does not follow the parenting plan’s custody arrangement, the other parent may have to return to court to enforce the parenting plan. The violating parent may be responsible for face attorney fees or face fines and imprisonment.

Read More: How to File For Divorce in Washington

Child Custody Basics

How is Child Custody Determined in Washington State?

To start the custody process, a judge must confirm that Washington courts have jurisdiction over the child.

If no court has ever entered a custody order about your children, Washington has jurisdiction over them if one of these is true:

  • Your children have lived here with a parent (or someone acting as a parent) for at least six months before filing your court case. Washington is your child’s home state.
  • Washington is your child’s home state. At the time of filing your court case, the child has lived here with a parent or parent figure since birth. Your child is less than six months old.
  • Washington was your child’s home state (either a. or b. were true) within six months before filing your court case. One parent or person acting as a parent has been living here since the child left the state.

Child custody laws presume you are both parents to a child born during your marriage or domestic partnership or within 300 days after your marriage or domestic partnership ends. You can challenge a spouse or domestic partner’s legal relationship with the child by filing a Petition to Decide Parentage. You can also have the spouse or domestic partner, mother, and child’s biological father sign a denial of parentage.

Once jurisdiction is established, parents usually attempt to create temporary parenting plans that will be in force while a divorce occurs. The temporary orders end when the divorce is final, and a new set of custody orders goes into effect. These orders cover almost all the same things a permanent order covers after a divorce.

The court is guided by two related concepts when determining child custody. Those are preserving the status quo and determining who the primary custodial parent is.

Because the court’s primary focus is on preserving stability for the children, the court will order a parenting plan that ensures that the children spend most of their residential schedule with their primary parent. This typically results in the other parent having some version of an every-other-weekend visitation schedule.

A judge must consider several factors when deciding a child’s physical and legal custody. They all fall under the umbrella of doing what is in the child’s best interest.

After a judge signs a parenting plan, it is a court order, and both parents must follow it. In extreme cases, deviations may result in legal actions, including contempt of court, fines, and jail time.

The presumption in Washington state is that a child benefits the most from regular and ongoing contact with both parents. However, the judge must limit or completely deny a parent’s time with a child if that parent, or someone living with them, has engaged in:

  • Long-term willful abandonment of the children or the parent substantially refuses to care for the children.
  • Physical, sexual, or a pattern of emotional abuse of your child or someone else’s.
  • A history of domestic violence or an assault or a sexual assault causing serious bodily harm or the fear of it.
  • The parent has been convicted as an adult of certain sex crimes or is a sexual predator.
  • The parent has a long-term emotional or physical problem interfering with their ability to care for the children.
  • The parent has a long-term substance abuse problem, including alcohol, that interferes with their ability to care for the children.
  • There is no (or seriously damaged) emotional bond between parent and child.
  • The parent has denied the other parent contact with the child for a long time without good reason.

An abusive parent who has committed domestic violence toward the child will usually need to complete domestic violence treatment and several months of counseling before a normalized visitation schedule.

In high-conflict cases, courts often structure a child custody parenting plan to minimize contact between the parents. This might entail fewer exchanges in favor of more extended visitations or using a pick-up and drop-off at school as the exchange so that the parents rarely have to interact.

High-conflict parents are generally incapable of making major decisions together, so it is common to award sole decision-making rights to the primary parent.

To help parents resolve differences during parenting plan processes and as a way to solve future disagreements, the court may require using Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

Alternative dispute resolution methods include counseling, mediation, or arbitration (instead of litigation).

  • If you choose counseling, you will meet with a mental health professional who will use counseling techniques to help resolve your disagreement.
  • If you choose mediation, you will meet with a mediator: a neutral third party who may be a lawyer, retired judge or court commissioner, or mental health professional.
  • If you choose an arbitrator, you will meet with a neutral third party who may try to help you reach an agreement but will make a decision you both must follow if you cannot.

You must usually pay for an ADR and it can be costly. However, ADR can help you avoid court stress, expense, and unpredictability.

Read More: Counseling Children Through Divorce

The “Best Interests of the Child” Standard

A judge decides Washington child custody issues by always placing the best interests of the child above all other factors.

A judge must decide whether parents should share parenting time and decision-making authority. To determine whether a shared custody award is appropriate, a judge will consider:

  • The parents’ ability to work together
  • Each parent’s history of participation in decision-making over the child
  • The parents’ geographical proximity, and
  • Whether the parents share a desire to work together.

In addition to the above factors, a judge will evaluate your family’s overall circumstances in the context of the child’s best interests. These circumstances include:

  • The strength, nature, and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent and siblings
  • Each parent’s role in caretaking and attending to the child’s daily needs
  • The child’s emotional and developmental needs
  • Each parent’s mental health
  • The child’s adjustment to home, school, and community
  • The child’s relationship with siblings and extended family members
  • The child’s preference if sufficiently mature and able to express a well-reasoned preference
  • Either parent’s history of domestic violence
  • Each parent’s wishes for custody
  • Each parent’s employment schedule
  • Any other relevant factor

Although no single factor determines the outcome of a custody case, Washington State child custody laws place the most weight on the child’s relationship with each parent.

What is the Washington State Parenting Law for Unmarried Couples

Motherhood is typically established by giving birth or adopting a child. Unmarried fatherhood is most commonly established by:

  • a court (parentage) case
  • being married to the mother at or soon after the child’s birth
  • adoption
  • filing an Acknowledgment of Parentage with the state

An Acknowledgment of Parentage is a form both parents sign and file with the Washington State Department of Health stating that the person on the form is the only possible father. Hospital staff usually gives an unmarried mother this form in the hospital after the child’s birth, and parents often sign it before the child goes home.

When it is filed with the Department of Health, it has the effect of a court order establishing the person named the child’s legal parent. A signed and filed acknowledgment of parentage naming a person as the father gives that person all a parent’s legal rights and responsibilities.

An acknowledgment of parentage does not automatically create a parenting plan or child support order. It gives unmarried fathers the right to pursue these.

It also means the named parent is automatically responsible for paying child support, but parents must still go through the state Division of Child Support or court to get an order establishing support.

Parents or the state can also file a petition in a superior court asking a judge to decide who the child’s parent is. The judge chooses parentage based on the evidence presented. As part of this process, the judge can order the parent, child, and person believed to be the other parent to take a genetic test. Anyone who refuses court-ordered testing can be held in contempt of court.

A court action can also establish “de facto” parentage. If you are not a biological or presumed parent, you might be able to persuade a judge to give you parental rights by showing:

  • The natural or legal parent consented to and fostered your parent-like relationship with the child
  • You and the child lived together
  • You assumed the obligations of a parent without expectation of repayment
  • You have been in a parental role long enough to have established a bonded, parental relationship with the child
  • It is in the child’s best interest to continue your relationship

Only the person who wants to be a de facto parent can file this kind of case.

What is a Parenting Plan?

Parenting plans in Washington can be issued as part of a:

  • Petition for Dissolution of Marriage (divorcing parents)
  • Petition for Legal Separation
  • Petition to Establish Parentage (Paternity)
  • Petition to Modify Custody
  • Petition for Non-Parental Custody, which is an action filed by a non-parent for custody of a child
  • Petition for a Parenting Plan, which is filed when paternity has been established, but no parenting plan was entered

Washington State relies heavily on creating parenting plans to develop schedules and codify the rights and responsibilities of each parent. Some of the essential critical provisions of a plan include:

  • Each parent’s decision-making responsibility for the child
  • Residential schedule provisions (including where the child will live)
  • Holiday and summer vacation parenting time rights schedule
  • Each parent’s responsibility for transporting the child between visits
  • Child support award
  • How the parents will resolve disputes

A judge may issue a temporary parenting plan that a judge puts in place for a limited time. Parents might need to abide by a temporary parenting plan while a divorce or custody arrangements are finalized.

Permanent parenting plans are the permanent order of the court. Parents agree to a permanent parenting plan or leave matters up to a judge. Regardless of who creates the plan, it must be approved by the court and becomes a legally binding document when executed. Both parents must follow its terms until a child reaches age 18, is emancipated, or the parenting plan is modified.

The parenting plan gives decision-making authority to one or both parents regarding the children’s education, health care, and religious upbringing. It will set forth a schedule of where the child resides. However, no matter who is given decision-making in the parenting plan, either parent may make emergency decisions affecting the health or safety of the child.

Can you Modify a Washington Child Custody Plan?

Yes. Circumstances change, and what worked when a parenting plan was first issued may no longer work in the future.

Either parent can file a petition to modify custody in Washington. The parent seeking a modification must show that there has been a material change in circumstances and that the child’s best interests warrant a custody modification.

Modification requests can be complicated, and it’s often best to speak with an experienced family law attorney to assist you with a possible modification.

The process is far simpler if both parties are in agreement about how to modify the parenting plan.

Washington State Child Custody FAQs

How does child support affect child custody?

Child support and custody are treated separately. Support follows the Washington State Child Support Schedule and depends on each parent’s income. The court adds the parents’ incomes together and finds the amount of support on the Schedule that applies to the number and ages of children.

Even when custody is shared almost equally, support may still be ordered if there is a large income discrepancy.

Read More: Everything You Need to Know About Alimony

Does a child have a say in custody matters?

Judges will consider what a child wants, especially if the child is at least 12 years old. However, judges still have the final authority about custody matters and will always defer to the best interests standard in a divorce.

What are the child custody rules about moving to another part of Washington or out of state?

In most cases, you can move to another part of Washington or out of state.

It helps quite a bit if you’ve already addressed this possibility in a parenting plan. Many parenting plans build this contingency upfront to avoid later added conflicts.

If you decide to move, you must give the other parent notice beforehand. In response, they must be given a chance to object to the move. When there is a disagreement, the court will set a hearing, and the judge will decide whether to allow the move, basing the action on what is in the child’s best overall interests.

Does Washington State favor mothers over fathers in custody cases?

No. Decisions are never based on gender. Mothers and fathers have equal parental rights regarding child custody issues.

Do grandparents have custody or visitation rights?

A grandparent or other third party can petition the court for custody or visitation rights. Custody may be awarded when parents are deemed unfit or unwilling to meet their responsibilities.

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