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The Basics of Washington State Child Custody Laws



If you have one or more children and are getting a divorce in Washington State, custody laws are something you’ll want to understand. Divorce can be an emotional and uncertain time for you. You’ll want to know what to expect.

Washington State child custody laws do not use the terms custody and visitation. Instead, they refer to a parenting plan. A parenting plan should cover:

  • Where the kids will live and with which parent
  • How the parents will make decisions regarding the children
  • How future disputes between the divorcing parents will be resolved

Judges prefer that the parents – often with the help of their Washington State child custody lawyers – come up with a parenting plan with which they both can agree. Often, if the parents come up with a solution of their own, the judges will sign off on it.

If, however, the parents cannot agree to a parenting plan, they will go to trial, and the judge will decide the matter for them. The judge’s decision will be final.

Washington State Custody Laws

Under Washington State child custody laws, judges who sign off on a couple’s divorce must consider the best interests of the child as the guiding principle in deciding custody issues. Even if both parents agree to a custody arrangement, the judge will review it and make sure it is in the children’s best interests.

In determining what is in the best interests of the children, the judge will look at each parent’s ability to:

  • Maintain a loving, stable relationship with the children
  • Provide for the children’s basic needs, such as feeding, clothing, physical health, grooming, health care, day care, etc.
  • Be involved with the educational needs of the children
  • Exercise sound judgment
  • Financially support the children

How a Washington State Parenting Plan Takes Shape – Where the Children Will Live

In deciding with which parent the children should live, the judge will ask each parent to come up with a schedule which will include where the children will be during the weekdays, weekends, holidays, birthdays and vacations. The plans must be specific and include transportation arrangements. In other words, how will the children get to where they need to be?

In approving the plan, the judge will decide whether it provides the most loving and stable relationship between the children and each parent. The judge is likely to grant more time with the parent who was seeing to the daily needs of the children before the parents filed a petition for divorce or dissolution of marriage.

Among the factors a Washington State judge may consider when deciding child custody arrangements are:

  • How good of a parent each divorcing spouse was during the marriage
  • The relationships the children have with siblings and other adults in their lives
  • How involved the children are in their community, such as in school, church and extra-curricular activities
  • The wishes of the children, if they are old enough to express those wishes in reasonable detail

How Future Decisions Will be Made

Some important decisions that parents have to make include those about the children’s education, health care and religious upbringing. Divorcing parents should discuss how these decisions will be made in the future after the divorce is finalized.

Their plan could include joint decision-making, alternate decision-making for various topics or leaving the responsibility up to just one of the parents.

In approving a plan – or deciding one for a divorcing couple who can’t come up with one on their own – a judge may consider:

  • Which parent has made most of the decisions in the past
  • How cooperative the parents can be in the future
  • How far away the parents will be living from each other

Even if only one parent is granted the authority to decide how to raise the children, when the children are staying with the other parent, that parent will have the ability to make the day-to-day decisions for the children. Both parents would have the ability to make decisions in an emergency involving the children.

How to Resolve Disputes Going Forward

A parenting plan will include a process for resolving disputes if the parents cannot resolve them themselves simply by talking them over. In creating the parenting plan, the parents can outline the process, including any specific third-parties, such as counselors or a mediator, that may be consulted to help resolve the situation.

This same resolution process can also be used to alter the parenting plan as the needs of the adults and children change after the divorce.

If the parents still cannot agree, a plan may allow them to take their dispute to arbitration, where both sides will present their sides and a neutral, third-party arbitrator would decide the matter for them. In fact, under Washington State child custody laws, parents cannot go back to court to resolve a contentious matter until they have tried an alternative dispute resolution effort such as arbitration.

Enforcing the Parenting Plan

If one parent does not live up to the parenting plan’s arrangements, the other parent may have to return to court. The violating parent faces paying the attorneys costs, a fine and even imprisonment, if the violation is severe enough.

The non-violating parent must continue to provide for their children’s needs while he is trying to enforce the parenting plan.

Custody issues as outlined in the parenting plan are completely separate from child support arrangements. Whether you are in Aberdeen or Bellevue or any other city in Washington State, parents cannot withhold child support as a way of enforcement. In other words, you cannot stop your ex-spouse from seeing the children if he has stopped making child support payments. Conversely, you cannot withhold child support payments if you have been denied access to the children.

In these instances, you must follow the steps for resolving disputes as laid out in your parenting plan. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to return to court. Ask your Washington State child custody lawyer for more details.