Child Custody in Washington: The Best Interests of the Child

Washington courts award custody of children based on the "best interests of the child" standard. Here's how it works.

Washington courts use the best interests of the child standard to make decisions about custody and visitation of a minor child whose parents are divorced or separated. This standard is based on the idea that a child’s best interests are served when the child is supported by both parents, and when both parents are responsible for making decisions for their child. Additionally, a child's interests are served when parents maintain a child's "emotional growth, health and stability, and physical care." Thus, the court will look at the child's current relationship with each parent to determine what parenting arrangement is in the child's physical, mental, and emotional best interest.

Before turning to the court to make a decision, Washington judges encourage parents to come up with a proposed parenting plan that meets the needs of their child. A proposed plan should describe each parent's responsibility for the child, including how the parents will divide the custody and visitation schedule, how the parents will provide for the child as the child matures, and how the parents will resolve any future disputes about custody (such as through mediation or counseling). The plan should also ensure that the child will not be exposed to conflict between the parents. A good parenting plan includes details about which parent the child will live with, when the child will visit the other parent, and what the holiday and vacation schedules will be. It may also include decisions the parents have agreed to about the child's religious or cultural upbringing, or an agreement about how parents will share medical and educational costs.

If the parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, the next step is generally dispute resolution, meaning counseling, mediation, or arbitration. In this process, each parent will create a proposed parenting plan and a counselor or mediator assigned by the court will review each parent's proposed plan, meet with the parents in an effort to reach a compromise agreement that both parents accept, and then prepare a written agreement or order for custody and visitation.

As a last resort, parents may ask the court to order a parenting plan. The judge will make orders about where the child will live, what the visitation schedule will be, how the parents will resolve disputes, whether one or both parents will make decisions about the child's education, healthcare, and religious upbringing, and the consequences to the parents if the plan is not followed. Keeping the best interests of the child standard in mind, the judge may consider factors like who the child primarily lives with, the child's relationship with each parent, the child's involvement in school and other activities, and which parent may provide the best guidance for the child. The judge may also consider the child's preference, the financial stability of each parent, and the child's relationship with siblings, grandparents, or other family members. Generally, the judge will make orders in a way that will minimize disruption in the child's life.

Once a child custody order is made, parents can only modify the parenting plan by mutual agreement or if there is a significant change in circumstances.

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