Washington State Child Custody Laws


This is the most comprehensive guide on child custody in Washington State.

Child custody is one of the most sensitive and important issues in family law. Sadly, 50% of children will experience the divorce of their parents during childhood, meaning one in two children will be impacted by divorce.

If you are reading this, chances are you or someone you know is facing a child custody case in Washington State. Washington State refers to custody as “residential time.” The cases generally revolve around a Divorce, the Establishment of a Parenting Plan, or Modifying an Existing Parenting Plan. Cases involving one’s children are oftentimes very difficult , as is the process itself. As such, it is important to gather as much information as possible before proceeding.

In this guide you’ll learn:

  • What are Washington State’s Child Custody Laws
  • What is a Parenting Plan
  • What Should Be Covered in a Parenting Plan
  • How Child Custody is Determined in Washington State
  • How to Establish or Modify a Parenting Plan in Washington State
  • Understanding Custody Terms
  • Potential Modifications to a Parenting Plan
  • When Should You Speak with an Attorney

If you are ready to dive into the world of child custody in Washington State, let’s get started!

Washington State Child Custody Laws

When parents with children separate or divorce in Washington State, they are expected to create a custody arrangement referred to as a “parenting plan.” This can be done with a joint plan or separate plans outlining each parent’s preferences for residential time with each parent. The plan is presented to the Court as a proposal . Proposed Parenting Plans are not legally binding until it is signed by a judicial officer, making it a court order. .

It is common for the court to request that parents attend mediation in an attempt to reach an agreement on a Parenting Plan. In fact, Pierce County requires parties to attend some form of Alternative Dispute Resolution in matters involving children (Divorce, Modification of a Parenting Plan, and Establishing a Parenting Plan). If the parents are unable to agree, the court may determine custody as part of a divorce, separation, abuse, neglect, or guardianship case. In a divorce, establishment of a parenting plan, or modification of a parenting plan the primary concern is the “best interests” of the child. There are other factors that are also addressed depending on each case’s unique circumstances. Those can include; what the parties have historically done, the relative strength, nature and stability of the child’s relationship with each parent, work schedules, and even the residences of each parent. .

Determining what is in the child’s best interests is not a “one size fits all” approach, but rather requires each judicial officer to address the totality of the circumstances of each family.

As each case is different and will depend on the individual child and family situation, it is important to speak with a family law attorney about your particular case.

What is a Parenting Plan?

For separated or divorced parents, the Parenting Plan is crucial. It outlines residential time between the parents along with other items that can be topics of disagreement. This legal document includes all residential time between the child and each parent, decision-making provisions, and so much more.

A “parenting plan” outlines a schedule for time with each parent and establishes:

  • The decision-making responsibility of each parent.
  • Residential provisions such as where the child will live during the school year.
  • Visitation schedules for holidays and summer vacations.
  • Transportation responsibilities of each parent.
  •  Any limitations that might be necessary to protect the child.Any parenting concerns (substance abuse, DV, etc).
  • The process of resolving disputes between parents.
  • The process for relocating with the child.

In Washington State, parenting plans are broken down into two categories: temporary and permanent.

What is a Temporary Parenting Plan?

If a parenting plan has not already been established in a Washington state case, a temporary parenting plan may be ordered by the court. Temporary parenting plans are residential schedules that are put in place for a limited time period. For instance, you and your spouse may need to adhere to a temporary parenting plan while your divorce or custody case is pending. Once your divorce or custody matter is started (i.e. a Petition of some sort has been filed), either party may file a Motion for Temporary Orders; including a request for a Temporary Parenting Plan.

Similar to a permanent or Final Parenting Plan, a Temporary Parenting Plan outlines each parent’s authority to make medical or educational decisions for the child. Additionally, it specifies the times and locations for child visits and exchanges.

What is a Permanent Parenting Plan?

A permanent Parenting Plan, also known as a Final Parenting Plan, is issued as part of the Final Orders in a divorce or custody matter. This long-term arrangement is legally binding and establishes each parent’s rights, responsibilities, and residential time with the child.

Parents can either agree to a Final Parenting Plan on their own or a Trial Judge will make a ruling on the provisions of a Final Parenting Plan. In both cases, the purpose of the plan is to meet the needs of the child(ren) and ensure that their best interests are protected.

After a Final Parenting Plan has been established as a court order, both parents are legally bound to comply with its provisions until the child turns 18, is granted emancipation, or the parenting plan is revised through a modification or other court order

What Should Be Covered in a Parenting Plan?

While there is no “one size fits all” Parenting Plan, there are certain topics and items that must be included. Generally, a Parenting Plan should cover the following:

  • Child’s residential schedule. Details when the child will spend time at each parent’s home if living with both.
  • Schedule for holidays and special occasions. Determines where and when the child will spend time with each parent during these particular events.
  • Decision-making for the child’s well-being. Concerning education and healthcare needs.
  • Dispute resolution. Explains how conflicts will be resolved.
  • Limitations. Valid reasons and specific limitations on either parent necessary to protect the child.
  • Provisions for exchanges. Explains how and where the exchange of children will take place, including transportation.

Your family law attorney can help you draft a Parenting Plan that is tailored to your family’s specific needs. They will make sure all the necessary provisions are included and properly addressed in the document.

IMPORTANT: It is also important to note that if circumstances change or either parent wishes to modify the Parenting Plan after it has become a Court order, both parties must agree or a Petition to Modify must be filed. In Washington, a modification requires a court hearing and the showing of a substantial change in circumstances. For that reason, it is important to have clear provisions in your Parenting Plan to account for potential ambiguity or areas of disagreement in the future.

How Child Custody is Determined in Washington State

When a custody issue is presented to the court, the main goal is to determine a Parenting Plan that is in the best interest of the child. In making this decision, the Court considers a number of different factors, including:

  • The child’s relationship with each parent
  • The child’s relationship with siblings or other individuals in each parent’s household
  • Each parent’s ability to care for their child
  • The physical, emotional, and mental well-being of the child
  • What parenting arrangements will cause the least disruption to the child
  • The child’s primary caretaker in the past

The court considers various factors when assessing each parent’s ability to care for their child, including employment schedules, residential location, general lifestyle, home stability, and any history of domestic violence or abuse. If there are concerns about the safety or well-being of a child in one or both parents’ homes, it may be an appropriate situation for the request of a Guardian ad litem (GAL).

It’s crucial to recognize that every case is unique and may have distinct circumstances that could influence the final decision. If you’re in the process of divorce with children, separating from the other parent, or modifying an existing parenting plan, seeking the counsel of a knowledgeable divorce attorney is highly recommended for personalized legal guidance.

How to File for Child Custody in Washington State

In Washington courts, either parent has the right to file for child custody. But getting a favorable arrangement depends on various factors unique to each case. As long as the parents both live in the state, or at least one parent and the children reside in Washington state, the court will likely have jurisdiction over their case.

Step 1: Learn What’s Required

The first step is to visit the Washington courts website and learn about the requirements for filing a child custody order.

Step 2: Retain an Attorney in Washington State

If you plan to file for custody in Washington, it’s highly recommended that you speak with an experienced family law attorney. This will ensure that your rights are protected and that legal procedures are followed.

Having an attorney also shows the court that you’ve done your homework and are invested in the best interests of your child.

Bliss Law Group is a Tacoma-based family law firm that can assist you with your custody needs. Our attorneys strive to find the best possible solutions for our clients’ unique family law issues.

You can reach us by phone at 253-499-8845 or by filling out a short contact form.

Step 3: Determine Your Case Type

With the help of your attorney, determine whether you will be filing to Establish a Parenting Plan, obtaining a Temporary Order as a part of the divorce process, or modifying an existing Parenting Plan.

As every situation is unique, it is best to consult with your attorney to make sure you have the right information before moving forward.

The court frowns upon wasted time and resources, so make sure you are equipped with the right information before proceeding.

Step 4: Complete All Forms and File them with the Court

Completing the necessary forms is essential when filing for custody in court. To ensure a smooth process, it’s highly recommended to seek the assistance of an attorney who can guide you and check for any errors or omissions before submitting your pleadings with the Court.

Keep in mind that the paperwork requirements may vary depending on the county in which you live. Having a knowledgeable local family lawyer can be beneficial in navigating the specific paperwork, requirements, and local court rules.

Step 5: Serve the Other Parent

After filing your Petition and obtaining a case number, the other parent must be served the petition and court summons. A process server, your attorney, or any non-party over the age of 18 may serve the other party.

Step 6: Await a Response

When a parent receives a Petition and Summons, they must file a Response with the clerk of the superior court within a specific timeframe. If they are served the Petition within the state, they generally have 20 days to file a response. If they are served the Petition outside of the state of Washington, they generally have 60 days to respond.There are other means of service (i.e. mail, publication, or electronic service) which require prior court approval. Discuss options with your family law attorney if you have concerns regarding the whereabouts of the other party.

Step 7: Proceed with Mediation or Litigation

Once all the documents are filed, both parties will go through mediation or litigation. Mediation involves a neutral third party who helps you find common ground and come to an agreement without going to court. The mediator is not a judge and cannot force you to agree on anything. However, they are usually experienced family law practitioners who know what the Court is likely to order and can help each party discern what is the best option considering all potential outcomes at trial or via litigation.

If the parties can’t reach a resolution in mediation, then the case will go to court, where a judge will make the final decision regarding the custody arrangement.

Understanding Custody Terms

You may come across certain terms used by parents from other states when they talk about their parenting plans. However, it’s important to note that these terms are not part of Washington law and you won’t find them in a Washington Parenting Plan. That being said, the following are the usual meanings of these terms:

Joint Custody: Both parents share time with the children and participate in making decisions. This is common when both parents are able to effectively communicate and co-parent their child without perpetual conflict.

Sole Custody: Only one parent has custody of the children due to serious parenting issues. Generally, this parent also makes all decisions about the children.

Custodial Parent: The parent who has the children the majority of the time (i.e. more than 50%).

Residential Parent: The parent with whom the children are currently residing. Example: you may be the custodial parent, but when the children are with the other parent for “visits” the parent with the children at that time is considered the “residential” parent.

Can You Modify a Parenting Plan in Washington State?

It depends. The statute is very specific that “a Parenting Plan must not be changed unless….” This means there is a presumption that the parenting plan remains unchanged. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the person who wants to modify the parenting plan to meet a high burden. This is called showing “adequate cause.” Depending on the type of changes you are requesting (minor or major modification) you may be required to show a substantial change in circumstances in the household of the other parent, with the child, or within either parents’ home. The substantial change in circumstances must be something that was unknown at the time the previous parenting plan was entered. Not only does the moving party need to show that a substantial change in circumstances has arisen, but they must also show that the requested change in the parenting plan is in the child’s best interest.

To change custody in Washington, a parent must submit legal documents to the court, which includes a “Petition for Modification of a Parenting Plan.” In this petition, the parent should clearly state the reasons for requesting custody changes. Filing a Proposed Parenting Plan along with your Petition will indicate to the Court what you would like the new Parenting Plan to look like.

Keep in mind that filing for modification does not guarantee that the court will approve your request. In all cases, the court must assess the totality of the circumstances before granting or denying “adequate cause” to proceed.

In these cases, it is best to work with a Washington family law attorney who can help you understand the process and legal requirements for a modification. This way, you can ensure that your petition has a higher chance of success.

When Should You Speak to an Attorney?

If you want to modify an existing Parenting Plan or establish one, then it is recommended that you speak to a family law attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer can help look over your case and evaluate your chances of success before moving forward.

The family law court in Washington state appreciates parents who are represented by an attorney, as it makes the process smoother, so make sure to consult a lawyer with experience in these matters. This way you can be sure that your rights and the rights of your children are protected throughout the process.

If you have any questions about child custody in Washington state, the family law attorneys at Bliss Law Group can help. Our lawyers have the experience and knowledge to handle even the most complex child custody cases. Contact us today for a consultation.

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