What Do Most Judges Look for in Washington Child Custody Cases?

November 1, 2022

Divorce is difficult, no matter the situation. When it’s just you and a spouse, your finalized divorce is typically the end of your contact with each other. However, if you have children, that makes divorce proceedings more complex.

When you seek divorce from your child’s other parent, you may wonder what you can do to retain custody of your child. In Washington State, child custody is primarily determined by the best interests of the children in the case. How are best interests determined? The judge looks at specific criteria that state laws mandate and the circumstances surrounding your divorce to make the decision.

Typical Considerations Used to Determine Child Custody in Washington State

While each state has its own laws regarding determining child custody, there are some common factors that judges consider. However, there is also room for personal discretion when the judge makes the determination. Invariably, even the most extended list of mandated considerations includes a phrase such as “and other relevant factors,” allowing judges leeway to consider things specific to your case.

Here are the typical considerations when deciding the best interests of a child in a custody case.

Parental Ability to Meet the Children’s Needs

One of the primary considerations when determining the child’s best interests is how well the parent can provide for basic needs. The child’s safety, health, and welfare are of utmost importance. The judge will consider which parent can best provide for the child’s specific needs. Among the considerations are individual educational, medical, physical, and mental health needs.

Relationship Between Parents and Children

Most states explicitly encourage both parents to maintain a continued relationship with their children. Therefore, the judge will consider how the children interact with the parents now and how they interacted in the past.

Parent’s Willingness to Be Supportive of the Relationship Between the Other Parent and the Children

How well do you and your spouse cooperate regarding visitation, transportation, and other matters that affect the children? Do you attempt to help your child maintain a relationship with the other parent? Does either of you bad-mouth the other in front of the children?

Parents who are the most cooperative will tend to edge out the other parent when it comes to custody decisions. A child custody judge will typically teach parents who attempt to alienate their children from the other parent a hard lesson.

The Relationship Between Parents and Children Before the Divorce

Have you taken time to care for the children and spend quality time with them? Or, has one of you taken a more significant role in child-rearing? It’s not unusual for parents to suddenly decide they must spend more time with their children after the divorce.

Most of the time, the desire to be with the children more is an honest one based on the realization that life is changing significantly. Judges will listen to the parent’s perspective and account for how often they have attempted to be with the children since getting separated. Judges will also consider perceived motivation as well as the ability to follow through if they are granted their wish to have more time with the children.

Accusations of Abuse or Neglect at Any Time

Abuse and neglect are taken very seriously. Judges will consider the history of the neglect and abuse as well as whether there is evidentiary proof of any allegations. Judges may determine that the parent only needs supervised visits if there is evidence of abuse or neglect when dealing with the children.

Importance of Stability and Continuity for the Children in Washington State

If you seek child custody in Washington, you may hear the “status quo” concerning your petition. That refers to keeping the children’s situation as close to what they have had as possible. Divorce is traumatic even for children, and the judge will strive to reduce that trauma.

Depending on the age of the children, they may be facing the loss of friends, the school atmosphere, or the neighborhood they’ve known for a lifetime. The parent who contends that the way things currently stand works well may or may not have an advantage over the parent who wants to change custody or visitation.

Living Situations of Everyone Involved

Where the parents live will be considered when determining custody arrangements. Sometimes, one of the parents can retain possession of the family home following a divorce. Other times, both parents must relocate.

Judges may frown upon allowing you shared or primary custody if you’ve landed on someone’s couch after the divorce. However, that doesn’t mean you need a place like the Taj Mahal of homes. You simply need a safe, stable location for the children, and it’s essential to recognize that judges will consider what you can afford versus what you have when they look at child custody arrangements.

Distance Between Parental Homes

Another consideration when judges look at child custody is how closely the parents reside to each other. Live in the same community, and the children will likely be able to continue with the same activities they have enjoyed. The judge could look more favorably on a petition for joint custody.

Children’s Preferences and Desires in Washington State?

In some cases, the judge may hear the children’s desires for custody. In that case, the judge will attempt to merge the child’s desires with the information that seems crucial to the custody hearing. That is not to say that the child will necessarily get to choose where they live. It simply means their opinion will be heard and considered.

What Role Does Age Play in Custody Decisions?

Some states and judges still consider children of a lower age to benefit from remaining with their mothers. However, in most places, the gender of a parent is not as important as who can care for the children routinely. If the father has previously been the primary caregiver, he will likely be considered a potential candidate for primary custody. Some judges will consider the age of a child.

Factors Judges Don’t Consider in Custody Cases

While judges consider numerous factors when determining child custody, some things typically don’t factor into the decision. Here are some factors that aren’t routinely considered in child custody cases.

  • The relationship status of the parents. New partners have little bearing on child custody.
  • The parents’ sexual orientation. Again, who you love, and especially whether you are someone in the LGBTQ+ community, have little bearing on child custody.
  • The actions one parent took that hurt the other parent. Your spouse cheated on you? That doesn’t mean they are a terrible parent in the eyes of the law.
  • The cultural backgrounds of the parents. Like sexual orientation, your culture has very little to do with your ability to parent your children.

While these things are typically not considered, there are some instances where the judge may determine they are relevant. If something on the list of unconsidered factors affects the children’s health and overall best interests, the judge may consider it. For example, if one spouse has a history of being violent toward the other, the judge could determine that is a reason to restrict that person’s access to the children.

Types of Child Custody

Child custody cases aren’t as simple as awarding custody to one parent over the other. As we’ve seen, several factors contribute to the child custody decision. If a judge decides the custody case, they will determine which type of custody is in the child’s best interest. There are two types of child custody that are typically considered.

  • Joint custody means the child will spend anywhere from 40% to 60% of their time with each parent. So, approximately half of the year, they are with one parent, and the other half, they are with the other parent. Granted, the year isn’t typically split down the middle. You might get a week-to-week parenting arrangement, or the time could be split using weekends and school breaks for guidelines.
  • Sole custody means the child spends more than 60% of their time with one of their parents. The other parent may or may not get visitation depending on the situation.

The Role of the Parenting Plan in Washington Child Custody Cases

In Washington, parents are encouraged to create their parenting plan. In many cases, this eliminates the need for a judge’s intervention in custody matters. The parenting plan can be temporary or permanent and can be submitted jointly as both parents want custody to be established, or each parent can submit their own plan.

The parenting plan provides an outline for how parents would like to see custody go in the final divorce paperwork. It must cover key components of caring for the children, such as which parent will make what decisions, where the children will spend holidays and school vacations, and where the children will live. If both parents are in agreement regarding their child custody plan, parents can often save the hassle of appearing in court to settle child custody.

Hiring a Bellevue Child Custody Attorney to Help You and Your Family

Child custody decisions can be some of the hardest you need to make when getting a divorce. However, it’s essential that you understand how child custody cases are decided in Washington State. Before you attempt to handle your child custody matter, consult with a qualified attorney to determine the best course of action for your situation. The Aberdeen Law Firm has experienced child custody attorneys waiting to assist you.

Related Content: How Do I Get Full Custody of My Children in Washington State?

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