A Quick Overview to Help You Understand Child Custody Rules in Washington

Navigating child custody issues in Washington State is no easy task. As such, our Seattle child custody law firm created a simplified guide to your primary child custody concerns. Though this resource hopefully provides you with some clarity, we encourage you to contact a family law firm to help you come to the best resolutions for your family.

Child custody questions

The Ins and Outs Child Custody in Washington

Child Custody is about how children will be shared between parents who do not live together. This is means the time with each parent, as well as how future decisions will be made. Sometimes there are also child custody cases filed by others, such as relatives who feel the parents are unfit.

How the Washington Court Determines Custody

Many parents are able to reach agreement on a parenting plan themselves, sometimes with the help of a mediator. Any parenting plan agreed to by the parents can still be reviewed by the court to make sure it is in the best interests of the children.

Other parents cannot agree and need to go to court to make the custody determinations. In those cases, the court will often appoint someone to do interviews and write a report.

The courts want each parent to be involved in the child’s life. That does not mean that time will be equal. Often the child will be with one parent for school nights, while the rest of the time is divided.

The focus in most court decisions is what is best for the children rather than what is best for the parents.

A child may be permitted to express some preferences about custody decisions if the child is mature enough. Maturity is not just age. Usually in such a case the child would be interviewed outside of court.

The Next Step: Creating a Parenting Plan

The Court’s child custody decisions are put into a legal document called a “Parenting Plan.” During the case there can be a temporary parenting plan. At the end of the case there will be a permanent parenting plan.

A parenting plan is a court order that answers questions like:

  • When should the children be with each parent?
  • How will the children move between homes?
  • How much can the parents cooperate on big decisions?
  • Are any limits needed on either parent?
  • What protections are needed for the children?

A parenting plan may also contain other agreements the parents have made, and give instructions about possible future issues like moving.

Modifying Child Custody by Changing the Parenting Plan

If you file a request for the court to change your parenting plan, the court will first have a hearing to decide if you have good enough reasons for the change (“adequate cause”). If no, the case will end there. If yes, then it can move on to a trial.

The reasons you give need to show something major has changed (“a substantial change of circumstances”), such as:

  • the parents have agreed to a different schedule
  • the child is now living with the other parent
  • there has been abuse
  • the current plan is in some way harmful to the child

What Do the Custody Terms Mean?

Legal Custody. Physical Custody. Sole Custody. Joint Custody.

These are terms you may hear other people use to describe their parenting plans, especially if they live in another state. They are not part of Washington law and you will not see them in a Washington Parenting Plan. However, what people usually mean is:

  • Joint Custody: both parents have time with the children and participate in decision making. This is the most typical arrangement.
  • Sole Custody: Due to serious parenting issues, the children only live with one parent and that parent also makes all decisions about the children.
  • Legal Custody: That parent has full decision making power.
  • Physical Custody: The children live with the parent full time.

So Who Will Be Making the Decisions About My Child’s Daily Life?

Normally parents need to cooperate in making joint decisions about education and health care. On the other hand, usually each parent can make their own decisions about religious upbringing. Smaller day to day decisions are made by the parenting the children are with at the time.

A court may choose not to order joint decision making if:

  • the parents have a history of not being able to cooperate
  • there is a history of abuse
  • there are other reasons why the parents would not be able to make decisions together

What Happens if There is a History of Domestic or Child Abuse?

When there is a history of abuse, the courts can make special orders to protect the children or other parent. These orders could include:

  • Giving decision making to the other parent
  • Limiting residential time with the abusive parent
  • Requiring visitations be supervised
  • Not allowing any visitation at all
  • Making the abusive parent attend treatment or counseling

Limitations may also be put into place if either parent lives with an abusive partner who could be a danger to the children.

Where to File Your Child Custody Proceedings

Child Custody cases normally need to be filed in the child’s “home state”. That is the last state where they have lived for at least six months. However, there are exceptions to this rule. If the home state rule seems like a problem in your case, be sure to talk to a child custody lawyer about possible exceptions.

Relocation Concerns

When a parent is undergoing a move that will impact child custody and visitation, this is called “Relocation”. Your parenting plan will have instructions about what to do if you need to move. You will have to notify the other parent in advance of the move. The court may need to make a decision whether to allow the move. If the move is permitted, the parenting plan may need to be changed because of the distance between the new residences.