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.
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.
A "parenting plan" is essentially a custody schedule that sets forth the following:
Washington state custody laws recognize both temporary and permanent parenting plans.
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.
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.
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.
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:
In addition to the above factors, a judge will evaluate your family's overall circumstances, including:
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).
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.