How Do I File for Child Custody in Washington State?

March 8, 2023

The first thing you need to do if you’re facing child custody issues in Washington state is to consider all the options that you have. You can attempt to reach an agreement with the other parent and settle the case. Of course, most people who are searching for custody filing information are beyond this point. Another option when there is some contention but potential for an agreement is to try mediation or another court-arranged dispute resolution process.

If all else fails, you can file custody papers and take the case to court, where it will be litigated by attorneys and the judge that is hearing the case. However, this is generally the last resort for all family court matters. The courts in Washington, and elsewhere in the U.S., would rather that parents work matters out on their own whenever possible.

Some courts will even require mediation as a part of the custody and divorce process. They want to make sure that people cannot reach an agreement before they intervene. If you are in a situation where you need to file for child custody in Washington state, here’s what you need to know.


Who Can File for Child Custody in Washington State?

Either parent is capable of filing for child custody in Washington courts. Depending on the circumstances, one parent might have a better chance of being awarded a favorable arrangement, but there are several variables to consider here. As long as parents live in the state (or one does and the children reside there), the courts will accept a custody hearing.

If there are custody arrangements in place from another state, you may have to talk to an attorney about the best way to file for a change of custody or a modification to the existing agreements. However, you can still usually do it within the state as long as the children are residents and at least one parent is.

There are circumstances where other family members can file for custody. Most commonly, this is seen with grandparents when parents are unable to care for the children or they are no longer around. However, aunts, uncles, and other family members could also petition the court for custody of a relative’s children if they believe that they can provide the best life for them.

Regardless of who you are or why you’re filing for custody, you should make sure that your first step, after learning a little more about custody cases in Washington, is to hire a family law attorney who can help you navigate your case. They will be able to help you determine how to file, what type of information or documentation you need to provide, and what the best way is to get an outcome that is in the children’s best interests.


What Are the Grounds for Custody Cases in Washington State?

Unlike divorce, which you can do without contest or cause, custody filing has to be more than just “because you want the children” if you intend to win your case. Filing for custody is not:

  • A way to use the children against the other spouse
  • An attempt to “win” the children’s affection
  • A way to undermine the other parent’s relationship with the children

Courts will only hear custody cases with serious and just cause for considering an alternative arrangement to the current parenting plan. This could be due to a required move for a job, because one parent has become addicted to drugs or alcohol, etc. In most family courts, there is no standard “list” of reasons. The filing parent must simply present their case to the courts and have it be deemed worthy of a custody hearing.

What does matter to the state is what’s best for the children involved. They will consider things like:

  • The children’s relationship with each parent
  • The children’s relationship with siblings and other individuals in the household
  • The parents’ ability to care for the child
  • The child’s involvement in the local community
  • The mental, physical, and emotional health of each parent
  • The previous primary caretaker

For example, if two parents previously shared custody when they were together but the father was the primary caretaker and the mother worked full-time, it would be more likely that the courts would consider the father for custody, or create a 50/50 arrangement if both parents are now required to work after the divorce. All the variables involved make each case unique.


Step One: Learn What’s Required


The first step is to visit the Washington courts website and learn about the requirements for filing a child custody order. They have a great help page that explains everything, as well as access to other resources and tools. You can find out what you need to file, how to fill out the petition and what information you need to provide, and more. This way, you’re prepared when you get to the next step of getting an attorney to help you with your case.

In the past, it was difficult to learn about things like Washington child custody laws and cases because there was no Internet. Today, however, you can find a wealth of information to prepare you for a custody case long before you even set foot in a family courtroom.


Step Two: Retain an Attorney in Washington State

You will need to hire a Washington custody lawyer that has experience in your type of case. They should be able to help you figure out the paperwork and requirements (step one above) and assist you with every step of the process. They can also offer you helpful advice on the custody process, how to get the best chances of a good outcome, and other details.

Having an attorney also shows the court that you’ve done your homework and you know what you need to do to have the best chance of winning your case. It also gives you a better chance of getting through the process without a lot of stress because you’ve got someone on your side that knows what to expect and can help you prepare for each step along the way.


Step Three: Determine Your Case Type

With the assistance of your lawyer, you will now need to determine the case type that you have. This could be a divorce or separation, or an annulment that will impact child custody and support matters. Parents who are not married (or already separated/divorced) can file for custody as a standalone case. Paternity must be established and then either parent will be able to file for custody.

Your attorney can help you determine what type of custody paperwork you want to file, even if it’s just a modification to the existing parenting plan. The state also has a lot of resources (as mentioned) to help you understand the different ways of filing for custody and the steps involved in each.


Step Four: Complete All Forms and File them with the Court

You will need to complete all of the required forms for the court to file your custody case. Again, this is a step that your attorney can assist with to make the process smoother and save you a lot of headaches. If you do any of the paperwork yourself, make sure that your lawyer reviews it before submission to check for errors or anything that was missed.

Depending on the county where you live, you may have different paperwork to file related to a custody case. This is why it’s helpful to have an experienced local family lawyer on your side.


Step Four: Serve the Other Parent

Once you have filed the papers and have a case number, you can serve the other parent with the petition and court summons. You can hand over the documents directly if they sign a form agreeing that it’s acceptable. You must also not have restraining orders in place for this option.

You can also hire a process server to serve the papers, who will then complete the proof of service forms and file them with the court. You can serve by certified mail if the state permits it, or finally, post a notice in the newspaper to attempt to get a response.


Step Five: Await a Response

If they are served in person, the other parent has 20 days to respond. If you mailed the petition, they have 90 days. And if you published it in the newspaper, they get 60 days to respond. Their response will determine the next steps in the proceedings.


Step Six: Proceed with Mediation or Litigation

Once the other spouse has had a chance to respond (or if they don’t), the court will then determine whether you should proceed with mediation or just go through the legal court process to handle custody matters. The judge will use all the circumstances and information of the case to determine custody or order parents into mediation or another type of counseling or alternative resolution. Or, they may litigate the case in court and make the ruling themselves.


The Benefits of Having a Child Custody Lawyer in Washington State

Family law is complicated and wrought with emotion. A lot is going on and the last thing that you need is to be worrying about all the legal elements because you’re trying to handle your case alone. A Washington child custody lawyer will be able to help you navigate the process and get the outcome that you deserve. More importantly, they will work with the courts to make sure that whatever happens is in the best interests of the children.

If you’re dealing with a custody case in Washington, contact the Aberdeen Law Firm. Our family lawyers are experienced, aggressive, and dedicated to helping you get the best outcome in your custody case. Call us at 855-593-1497.

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