Washington Child Custody Laws

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

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School
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Deciding custody and parenting time can be one of the most difficult aspects of separation or divorce. Parents can resolve custody on their own or leave matters up to a judge to decide at trial. A judge will design a parenting arrangement that maintains a child's health, emotional growth, and physical care.

This article provides an overview of Washington child custody laws. If you have questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Washington State Custody Laws

When parents separate or divorce, they'll need to establish a custody arrangement, also called a "parenting plan". Parents can submit a joint parenting plan or each parent can submit his or her own parenting plan outlining the parent's custody preferences. A parenting plan is like a custody proposal to the judge. It doesn't become official or enforceable until the judge makes it a court order.

In many cases, a judge will require parents to attend mediation and attempt to work out an agreement. A judge may resolve custody as part of a divorce, separation, abuse, neglect, or guardianship case. In any of these cases, a child's needs are a central to a judge's decision.

What Is a Parenting Plan?

A "parenting plan" is essentially a custody schedule that sets forth the following:

  • each parent's decision-making responsibility over the child
  • residential provisions (including where the child will live)
  • holiday and summer vacation visitation schedule
  • each parent's responsibility for transporting the child between visits
  • child support award, and
  • how the parents will resolve disputes.

Washington state custody laws recognize both temporary and permanent parenting plans.

Temporary Parenting Plan

When there's no parenting plan in your Washington state case, a judge may issue a temporary parenting plan. "Temporary Parenting Plans" are a custody schedule that a judge puts in place for a limited amount of time. For example, you and your spouse might need to abide by a temporary parenting plan while your divorce or custody case is finalized.

Just like a permanent or final parenting plan, a temporary parenting plan will address each parent's rights to make medical or educational decisions on the child's behalf. A temporary parenting plan will also decide when and where visits and exchanges of the child will take place.

Permanent Parenting Plan

Like the name indicates, a "permanent parenting plan" is a final, permanent order of the court. Parents can agree to a permanent parenting plan or leave matters up to a judge. In either case, the objective of a permanent parenting plan is to provide for the child's current and future needs and physical care. See WA Rev. Code § 26.09.184 (2020).

Once a permanent parenting plan is adopted as an order of the court, both parents must follow its terms until a child reaches age 18, is emancipated, or the parenting plan is modified.

How Does the Parenting Plan Accommodate Visitation Rights?

A parenting plan, whether temporary or permanent, will spell out each parent's visitation rights. In most cases, it's in a child's best interests to have regular and consistent parenting time or visitation with both parents. When one parent has primary physical custody of a child, the other parent will receive regular visits with the child.

Washington's child custody guidelines establish a minimum visitation schedule which requires that the noncustodial parent (parent without primary physical custody) receive one weeknight visit and visits every other weekend. A judge may award a noncustodial parent more than the minimum amount of visitation, but not less. Even in cases involving an abusive parent, a judge is likely to award visits with protections in place. For example, a judge may require that all visits between a child and an abusive parent be supervised. Supervised visits will last until a judge is confident that the child is safe in that parent's care.

How Does a Judge Decide Custody in Washington?

In creating a permanent parenting plan, a judge must decide whether parents should share physical and legal custody (also called "parenting time" and "decision-making authority"). To determine whether a shared custody award is appropriate, a judge will look at the following:

  • 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, including:

  • the strength, nature, and stability of the child's relationship with each parent
  • 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, and
  • any other relevant factor.

Although no single factor is determinative in a custody case, Washington child custody laws place the most weight on the child's relationship with each parent. A mother's rights in Washington state are the same as the father's rights over a child.

In other words, a parent's gender can't be the basis for awarding or denying custody, but his or her role in parenting can impact a custody decision. See WA Rev. Code § 26-09-187 (2020).

Modifying Parenting Plans in Washington

Circumstances change over time and what worked for your family when your child was young may no longer work years later. Either parent can file a request to modify custody in Washington. For a judge to hear your case, the parent seeking to modify custody must show that there's been a material change in circumstances and that the child's best interests warrant a custody modification.

A child asking to live with the other parent may not be enough to warrant a custody change unless other factors are in play. In Washington, a judge will consider the wishes of a child who is at least 12 years old. An older child can request to switch parents, but a judge will only grant the change if it serves the child's best interests.

Specifically, for example, if the custodial parent has an abusive live-in boyfriend, the custodial parent is preventing visits, or the child is seriously struggling in school, a judge may modify custody to provide the child with a more stable environment. Ultimately, the outcome of your modification case will depend on your child's unique needs.

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