Child Custody in Washington

If you’re getting divorced in Washington and have minor kids, you will want to know about Washington's child custody laws. Let’s take a look at your rights, obligations, and the overall process.

What are the different types of child custody in Washington?

In Washington, there are primarily two types of child custody: legal and physical.

Legal and physical custody

A parent with legal custody has big decision-making power when it comes to the child's upbringing: where they attend school, for example, and from whom they receive medical care. A parent with physical custody lives and cares for the child on a daily basis.

In the state of Washington, the court tends to prefer awarding joint legal custody and joint physical custody, where parents share legal and physical duties. The primary reason: Maintaining a relationship with both parents is usually in the best interest of the child.

But “the best interest of the child” has room for some interpretation, and the court may look at various factors when deciding on child custody. For example, they may look at each parent’s ability to provide stability, each parent’s relationship with the child, and sometimes (if the child is mature), the child’s preference. Any history of domestic violence or substance abuse would also be considered by the court.

If one parent is deemed unfit by the court, the other may be given sole legal custody and sole physical custody. Read more about sole custody here.

How does the child custody determination process work in Washington?

A child custody case in Washington may be contested or uncontested. In an uncontested case, both parents agree on a custody arrangement. They create a written parenting plan and give it to the court for approval. 

In an uncontested child custody case, however, the parents aren’t harmonious in their decision. Thus, the court must get more involved. A trial with a presiding judge may be needed to make a final decision.

Alternatives to court

Disputes often arise between divorcing parents. If this happens to you but you don’t want to go to court, consider an alternative dispute resolution method. Mediation and arbitration are two popular choices.

Mediation involves working with a neutral third party who helps the parents reach an acceptable agreement. It is often less adversarial than going to court, and can help preserve a cooperative parenting relationship. Check out our child mediation checklist if you’re preparing for this type of work.

Arbitration involves the presentation of the case to a third-party arbitrator. The arbitrator makes a final decision, which is typically binding.

Washington's child custody laws are gender-neutral. Mothers and fathers have an equal right to custody, and the courts base their decisions on the best interests of the child, not on the parent's gender. 

Fees associated with child custody cases in Washington

If you initiate a child custody case, there is a filing fee. The cost ranges from $300 to $400. You may need to pay for the services of process. This involves having a third party, such as a sheriff or a professional process server, deliver court papers to the other parent. Service of process generally costs $20 to $75 per service.

If you require certified copies of court documents, there may be a small fee per page. This can be particularly important when you need to provide proof of court orders or finalized agreements.

If your case goes to trial, you might incur additional costs, such as expert witness fees or deposition costs. Fee waivers or reductions may be available for those who cannot afford the costs. Speaking with a legal representative or local court clerk can provide more specific information based on your situation.

What to know about joint custody schedules in Washington

If parents cannot agree on a joint custody schedule, the court will step in to make a decision based on the child’s best interest.

Various factors come into play here. These include, but are not limited to, the age of the child, their school schedule, their extracurricular activities, and the geographical distance between the parents' residences.

Typically, in a joint custody schedule, kids alternate time between parents. The arrangement may be a weekly one where a child spends one week with one parent and the next with the other. For younger children, courts often favor more frequent transitions, such as a 2-2-3 schedule. In a 2-2-3 schedule, the child spends two days with one parent, two days with the other, and three days with the first parent again. The cycle then repeats in reverse.

Each situation is unique, and the court will design a schedule tailored to individual circumstances. The court’s goal is to promote stability and consistency for the child while ensuring they maintain meaningful relationships with both parents.

In the best-case scenario, divorcing parents will be able to agree on their own visitation schedule. Not only does this save the court time, but it also shows the court that the parents can work well together.

What to know about child visitation in Washington

Child visitation rights in Washington are designed to ensure that the non-custodial parent stays in their child's life. A visitation schedule created by the court should account for the child’s needs, logistical concerns (distance and scheduling), and other pertinent issues.

A visitation schedule might include weekend visits, overnight stays, or midweek evenings. It may also allocate time together for important occasions like birthdays, holidays, and school vacations. 

Supervised visitation is sometimes ordered. This may occur if the court has concerns about the child’s safety or if the non-custodial parent has been absent from the child's life for a prolonged period. The supervisor may be a professional or a mutually agreed-upon third party. In certain cases, visitation rights may also be denied if it's in the best interest of the child.

How is child support determined in Washington?

Washington looks at the income of both parents in accordance with the Washington State Child Support Schedule. This schedule considers the combined net income of both parents and the number of children involved. Additional factors – healthcare, education costs, and special needs of the child, and such – may also influence the final child support amount.

The goal of child support is to have the child maintain a standard of living similar to what they would have had if their parents had remained married.

How to change a custody or visitation order in Washington

In Washington, a custody or visitation order can be modified if a substantial change in circumstances occurs after the existing order was made.

Grounds for modification could include any of the following:

  • A change in the living situation of one or both parents that affects the child's welfare
  • A persistent failure to comply with the current custody arrangement
  • A significant change in the child's medical, educational, or emotional needs

Courts are generally reluctant to disrupt stable situations. As such, a change typically only granted if absolutely necessary.

Decisions about the custody of a child can be one of the most heart-wrenching aspects of divorce. Don’t forget to look after your mental health as you go through this trying time. Hello Divorce is here to help. Here are some other articles we think you may find helpful:

Divorce Content Specialist & Lawyer
Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Legal Insights

Bryan is a non-practicing lawyer, HR consultant, and legal content writer. With nearly 20 years of experience in the legal field, he has a deep understanding of family and employment laws. His goal is to provide readers with clear and accessible information about the law, and to help people succeed by providing them with the knowledge and tools they need to navigate the legal landscape. Bryan lives in Orlando, Florida.