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Washington Child Custody Process

Issues of child custody are addressed after a couple with children separate. If the couple is married, custody determination is part of the divorce process; unmarried couples undergo a comparable child custody process.

Although the actions are similar, every state has its own specific procedures involving child custody. For instance, one key difference is terminology. Washington state doesn't use the word "custody" to describe parental and child living situations and decision-making arrangements. When you undergo the child custody process in the state, you may request either a parenting plan or a residential schedule.

Establishing Paternity

A husband is the presumptive father of children born during the marriage; if the biological father isn't married to the child's mother, he doesn't have legal rights as a father. However, establishing paternity allows the father to be recognized legally when the parents aren't married to each other. Then the father can establish custody and visitations rights.

To establish this, both parents must sign a paternity affidavit or paternity acknowledgment. When this is signed, the effect is that the father is the only possible father. Once this is filed, either parent may then file a court action for custody.

Washington Child Custody Process Overview

Although it's recommended to consult with an attorney in complex cases, a plain language guide to the law can be a helpful resource for understanding child custody law. The chart below provides an overview of the child custody process in Washington.


Washington Revised Code:


Filing a Petition


Establish Proper Venue

The process begins with the drafting of the petition. The filing parent files for a residential schedule/ parenting plan for the county where the child lives.

Parenting Plans and Residential Schedule

If parents agree on a proposed parenting plan or residential schedule, the court generally approves it. If they don't agree, the parties can request either a parenting plan or residential schedule.

Parenting Plan

A parenting plan is the court order that states the following:

  • When the child will be with each party;
  • Who will make major life decisions about the child; and
  • How the parents will resolve future disputes about the child.

Residential Schedule

A residential schedule is a court order which states when the child will be with each party.

For divorce cases: The residential schedule is a part of the Parenting Plan.

For parentage cases: The parties are allowed a Residential Schedule without the decision-making or dispute resolution parts of a Parenting Plan, or the parties may have a full Parenting Plan.

Final Court Order


If parents can agree after mediation, then the court will enter the agreement. If not, the court will make its own decision based on what's in the best interests of the child.

If mediation fails to produce a resolution, then the court will make the custody determination.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Washington Child Custody Process: Related Resources

Discuss Washington's Child Custody Process with an Attorney

If you're involved in a custody dispute in Washington, you might be confused by the process because of the complexity of the law and all the steps you must take. It's a good idea to get connected with a skilled Washington attorney familiar with family law issues who can help with getting the best custody arrangement for your child.

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