How Is Child Custody Determined In Washington State?

March 7, 2022

When two individuals no longer wish to be together, the situation is unfortunate for all parties involved. This is especially true of the children, who must deal with the fact that they’ll no longer live with both parents on a full-time basis.

The child custody process can be stressful, especially for the children. However, understanding the process may make it easier for you and make it easier to talk with your children about what takes place.

Additionally, having the proper knowledge regarding this process will better prepare you to navigate the court proceedings. This knowledge can also help you obtain the results you feel are most appropriate and hopefully allow this process to go much smoother for the sake of the children.

In this article, we’ll discuss how child custody is determined in Washington state. The laws for child custody are slightly different in every state, and if you’re a resident of Washington, it’s important to be aware of the specifics of this jurisdiction.

Parenting Plan

In Washington, courts don’t use the terms custody or visitation. Instead, the term parenting plan encompasses everything involved in the custody process.

After a final decision is made, there should be clear information regarding the following situations:

  • Where the children will reside, and which parent they will be with
  • How decisions will be reached regarding the safety and wellbeing of the children
  • How future disputes between the parents will be resolved

All of these characteristics are in the best interests of the children. In the end, having a solid parenting plan allows the custody process and the lives of the children to go much smoother.

How exactly is a parenting plan reached, and what is required during this process?

How to Decide On a Parenting Plan In Washington

Washington judges and courts always prefer that the parents come up with a proper parenting plan on their own. This shows the courts that the parents are able to co-exist and co-parent, leading to a much more positive environment for the children.

Normally, when parents come up with their own parenting plan, a judge will simply sign off on it if everything looks appropriate and serves the needs of the children.

However, this isn’t always possible, especially if the parents aren’t on good terms. When this happens, a trial is required, and both parents must attend court, where a judge will decide on a parenting plan.

When this happens, the judge’s decision is final.

What Does the Judge Examine In Washington?

The judge will analyze certain characteristics surrounding the parents’ situation. By law, the children’s best interests must be taken into account for the best potential future for them.

When the judge determines a parenting plan, he will analyze the following elements of the parents’ lives.

Relationship with the Children

The judge will analyze each parent’s relationship with the children. They must feel that they can maintain a loving and stable relationship. This includes a non-violent dynamic existing between the parent and child and each parents’ ability to provide for the children emotionally.

Basic Needs

It must be clearly demonstrated that the custodial parent is able to provide for the children. Their basic needs must be kept up with, including clothing, food, physical health, daycare, education, and other needs.

This includes their ability to transport themselves to the appropriate locations to purchase clothing and food, as well as healthcare appointments. They must also demonstrate the ability to get the children to and from school if they don’t live along a bus route.

Involved with Education

The judge must also feel comfortable about the parents’ ongoing involvement with the educational needs of the children. This includes helping them with homework, remaining involved with schoolwork and projects, and giving the proper attention to their progress or areas they might need assistance.

Sound Judgement

Parents must also demonstrate the ability to make sound judgment calls and be mentally capable of caring for the children. In certain instances, mental health professionals may be called upon to perform an interview with both parents to verify these abilities.


Parents must also prove that they are financially able to care for the children and provide for their basic needs. This includes food, clothing, shelter, utilities, and other expenses. The judge will require proof of this ability.

Normally this is determined by the parent providing evidence of their financial stability in the form of a letter from their employer. The judge may also require the parents to provide proof via bank statements or check stubs.

Understanding all of the specifics a judge looks for, the next step is the actual creation of the parenting plan, which will directly determine the custodial parent and custody schedule.

How Does the Parenting Plan Come Together In Washington?

After the judge carefully reviews all of the information mentioned above, the parenting plan can begin to finally come together. Before a decision is made, the judge will ask each parent to come up with a schedule outlining where the children will be on the weekdays, weekends, holidays, birthdays, and during vacation times.

The details of the plan must be very specific and outline dates, times, and means of transportation. After all of this information is compiled, the judge will begin further review.

When the review takes place, the judge will decide which situation provides the most loving, stable, and safe environment for the children. On most occasions, the judge ends up granting the majority of the time to the parent that was most proactive in attending to the children’s needs before the divorce or separation.

Besides all of these elements, the judge will also take a few other important factors into consideration before announcing a final decision. This information may be sourced from the children and individuals close to the family, including direct family members, friends, or coworkers.

How Was Parenting During the Marriage?

The judge will review each parent’s job during the marriage before the separation took place. They’ll look for information regarding who did the majority of the work, who transported the children the majority of the time, and which parent was most involved with schoolwork and other elements of their lives.

Children’s Relationships

The judge will also be interested in the children’s’ relationships with siblings outside of the marriage and other adults in their lives. They’ll want to know if there’s any other visitation involved and how they interact with other parties outside of the home.

Involvement in Community

There’s also a particular amount of importance placed on the children’s’ involvement with activities in the community. This includes church, school, and additional activities that involve the community and other residents.

Children’s’ Preference

The final element the judge takes into account is the preference of the children regarding the living arrangements. They’ll be asked which parent they prefer to spend the most time with and why. The older the children are, the more their opinions will be taken into account, as they’ll be considered more mature and able to make informed decisions.

Future Decisions

Another critical part of the parenting plan is how future decisions will be made between the parents. These decisions include school, healthcare, and other important events.

The judge will look for the ability of the parents when it comes to making these decisions together. Joint decisions or alternating decisions are always the best scenarios.

Additionally, the following characteristics will be taken into account:

  • Which parent made the majority of the decisions in the past
  • How cooperative the parents are currently
  • How far away they currently live from one another

Regardless of which parent the judge grants the majority of the decision-making to, or if joint decision-making is decided upon, both parents will have equal rights to make decisions during emergency situations.

Additionally, the parents will need to come up with a plan on how to resolve any disputes in the future. These plans will include who might be available as a third party to mediate these disputes, so they don’t need to return to court.

In Washington, the parenting plan is required to have a process called arbitration. Arbitration involves the use of any neutral party, agency, or individual to assist the parents in making decisions during future disputes.

These disputes may include a variety of topics or situations, including school, religion, activities, and several other challenges. The law in the state explicitly states that parents may not return to court to help solve these issues until the arbitration process has been exercised.

In the event that arbitration cannot solve these matters, parents may schedule a court date to go in front of a judge to help decide these matters. The state places heavy emphasis on the parents making an attempt to solve matters amongst themselves before going back to court to try and settle a matter.

This encourages collaboration among the parents and can lead to a healthier decision-making process. When parents can work together and coexist to make crucial decisions, it leads to a much better environment for the children.

What about enforcing the parenting plan? What happens when one parent doesn’t do their part?


When one of the parents doesn’t do their job, the other parent may have to return to court to make the judge aware of these situations. If the parent is found in violation of the parenting plan, the violating parent must pay for any attorney and court fees incurred during the process.

If the violations are found to be severe enough, the parent may also face fines or jail time. Regardless of the situation, the non-violating parent must continue to provide care and support without assistance from the violating parent.

It’s important to try and navigate the parenting plan process as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Setting the best example for the children is the most important matter, as these situations will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

Don’t Put Off Consulting with an Experienced Family Law Attorney in Washington

The Aberdeen Law Firm would be happy to provide you with a no-obligation consultation with one of our attorneys to see if we can help you with your child custody case in Washington. Contact us today.

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