Child Custody Relocation in Washington State

Information to consider regarding child custody relocation in Washington.

By , J.D. · University of Minnesota School of Law
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What does Washington state law say about relocating with a child when there is a custody and visitation order that's already in place?

In the State of Washington, if the custodial parent (the parent who has the greater amount of time with the child) wants to move away with the child, there are a number of initial considerations.

What Happens When There Is No Custody?

The first question is whether Washington's relocation law applies. If there is no existing court order for custody and visitation, then the relocation law doesn't apply and the custodial parent is free to move.

However, just because the custodial parent is free to move doesn't mean that parent has unfettered power. The custodial parent can't violate Washington's laws against custodial interference (meaning, laws that protect non-custodial parents—if the custodial parent violates these laws, jail time is a possible outcome) and can't violate the UCCJEA (also known as the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act—a law that's effective in every state to decide which state's courts have jurisdiction if custody is disputed in more than one place). Even if there isn't an existing court order, it's wise for the custodial parent to provide the non-custodial parent with notice of relocation plans. It's also a good idea to consult a lawyer before moving.

What Happens When There Is a Custody Order Already in Place?

If there is an existing court order dividing custody and visitation between the two parents, then the question becomes whether the Washington law applies to that order. If the existing order was entered by the court on or after June 8, 2000, then Washington's relocation law applies in full. If the order was entered before that date, the law applies only in part, and it is advisable to consult with an experienced family law attorney.

If the custodial parent simply wants to move to a new residence that's within the child's existing school district, the non-custodial parent doesn't have a right to object. However, the custodial parent should provide notice to the non-custodial parent. The notice should include the new address where the child will be living, the new telephone number (if it's changed), and the contact information of any new daycare provider or school. Although notice of these changes can be made through e-mail or an oral conversation, the smartest way for the custodial parent to handle this is to provide written notice via certified mail and keep a copy of the notice and proof of delivery.

I don't want my child to move away. What can I do?

If the custodial parent wants to move outside of the child's existing school and Washington's relocation law applies, then the custodial parent has to provide written notice about the move to the non-custodial parent. The custodial parent is required to provide this notice at least 60 days before the move. (There is a provision in Washington law to allow emergency notice of only five days, but these situations are unusual and require the custodial parent to show they couldn't have known about the relocation within 60 days and that relocation can't be delayed. This situation usually occurs when a parent is in the military.)

The notice is expected to contain new contact information, but if the custodial parent has previously been allowed to maintain a confidential address, the notice doesn't have to contain new address information. The custodial parent should provide the notice by U.S. mail (return receipt requested) or by personal service through a third party who will sign an "Affidavit of Service" (a sworn statement that delivery is complete).

If the custodial parent fails to provide proper notice, the court can impose different sanctions, such as requiring the custodial parent to pay the non-custodial parent's attorney fees, holding the custodial parent in contempt, and ordering the custodial parent to move back to the original location.

Once the custodial parent provides notice, the non-custodial parent has 30 days to file an objection with the court. An objection is a formal statement opposing the move and explaining why it isn't in the child's best interests. There is a specific form that should be used, and it is available at Washington's courthouses or online. If the non-custodial parent fails to file an objection within thirty days, the judge can enter an order permitting the custodial parent to move away with the child.

If the non-custodial parent files the objection in a timely fashion, then the judge will schedule a hearing to decide what is in the child's best interests. The custodial parent can ask the judge for temporary permission to move, but there is some risk associated with that request because the court could ultimately decide that the child should stay at the current residence and the custodial parent would have to return.

In addition to the objection, the non-custodial parent should file either a petition for modification of the parenting plan or other paperwork, like a motion for a temporary order, that will enable the court to hear everyone out and make a decision. It's very important to file a motion or petition to get the matter on the court's calendar. It's not enough for the non-custodial parent to write a letter to the judge explaining why the move shouldn't happen. The non-custodial parent must initiate formal court action.

How will the court decide whether a child can be relocated?

The judge will schedule a hearing to listen to everyone and gather evidence, and after the hearing, the judge will issue a written order. The judge is obligated to follow Washington law, which says that the courts must allow the relocation unless the parent who filed the objection can prove that the benefit of the relocation to both the child and the custodial parent is outweighed by the negative effects. Washington's law requires the court to consider the following ten factors in making the decision:

  • the relative strength, nature, quality, extent of involvement and stability of the child's relationship with each parent, siblings, and other significant persons in the child's life
  • any prior agreements between the parents
  • whether disrupting the contact between the child and the custodial parent would be more detrimental to the child than disrupting contact between the child and the non-custodial parent
  • whether either parent, or any other person entitled to time with the child, is subject to limitations imposed by the Washington law that limits visitation because of prior acts of abandonment, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or domestic violence and sexual assault
  • the reasons the parents are asking for or opposing relocation, and whether the proposed relocation is in good faith
  • the age, developmental state, and needs of the child, and the likely impact the relocation or prevention of relocation will have on the child's physical, educational, and emotional development, taking into account any special needs the child might have
  • the quality of life, resources and opportunities available to the child and to the relocating parent in the current and proposed locations
  • the availability of alternative arrangements to foster and continue the child's relationship with the non-custodial parent
  • the alternatives to relocation and whether it's feasible and desirable for the non-custodial parent to relocation too, and
  • the financial impact and the logistics of the relocation.

For purposes of deciding whether to allow the relocation, the judge is not allowed to consider whether the custodial parent will have to give up the move and stay put if the relocation is denied. The judge is also not allowed to consider whether the non-custodial parent will have to relocate if the child does. However, if the judge decides to allow relocation and must alter the parenting plan accordingly, then the court is allowed to ask about these things so it can prepare a sensible revised parenting plan that is in the child's best interests.

I'm a grandparent. What are my rights?

Nonparents, like grandparents and other relatives who have caring relationships with children, should consult a lawyer if they are facing the relocation of a child they love. The law strongly favors the rights of parents. Washington law allows nonparents to file objections, but the law only allows judges to rule in favor of nonparents if the nonparent has visitation rights that are formally written in a court order and the nonparent has been the child's custodian for a significant period of time during the last three years.

Other Resources

State of Washington Custody, Divorce, and Relocation Laws

Washington Courts: Court Forms (including child relocation category)

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