In a custody case, parents may be awarded physical and/or legal custody of a child. Generally speaking, a parent with physical custody lives with the child and provides the child with daily necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. A judge may award one parent sole physical custody if it would serve the child’s best interests. In other cases, a joint physical custody award (where physical custody is shared between the parents) may be more appropriate.
Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make major educational, medical, religious, or legal decisions on the child’s behalf. In most cases, parents will share legal custody unless it would be counter to the child’s needs. However, both parents are entitled to make emergency medical decisions for the child and may access the child’s school records even in cases where only one parent has legal custody.
“Parenting time” is another term for visitation or each parent’s access to the child. A parenting time schedule will set forth how many days and/or hours per week each parent may spend with the child. For example, your parenting time schedule may order that you receive four days per week with the child and your ex receives three days per week.
Additionally, the parenting schedule will establish holiday visitation and will specify when and where custody exchanges should take place. The parenting schedule may also resolve future decisions for the child such as the child’s religious upbringing and where the child should attend school when appropriate.
Washington law establishes minimum parenting time laws. Even if one parent receives sole physical and legal custody, the noncustodial parent (parent without primary physical custody) is still entitled to a minimum amount of parenting time with the child. A noncustodial parent should receive at least one weeknight visit and every other weekend visits with the child. A court may deviate from this amount and may award a noncustodial parent more time, but the court cannot order less time, unless the child’s best interests demand it.
Washington law encourages parents to submit their own proposed parenting time schedules to a judge. A judge’s custody decision will be based on the child’s needs, not what each parent wants for parenting time. Still, a parenting plan can be helpful for a judge to review the issues at play in your case.
No single factor is determinative in a custody case. A judge will review your family’s overall circumstances and needs to design a parenting schedule that is best suited to your child’s needs. Specifically, the following factors are relevant to your child’s best interests:
It’s generally in a child’s best interests to keep siblings together. Also, a judge won’t look at the child’s or parent’s gender as a factor when awarding custody. In other words, mothers don’t have an automatic advantage in custody proceedings. Older children may have some say in custody cases—generally if they are over 12. A child’s wishes aren’t necessarily binding on the court, but are just one of many factors a judge may consider in a custody case.
Custody orders are considered final orders, but they are unlikely to remain the same over time. You can file a motion to modify custody when there has been a material change in your own or your child’s circumstances, or a significant amount of time has passed since the court entered the last custody order.
If your ex opposes the modification, a judge will typically hold a hearing to decide whether a custody modification would serve your child’s best interests. The same factors that are relevant in an initial custody determination are relevant to a modification proceeding. There’s no guarantee that a judge will grant your modification request, but if you’ve experienced a remarriage and cross-country move, job change, or major medical illness, these may provide valid grounds for a change in custody.