Washington Custody Hearings and Trials: How to Prepare

During the child custody process, you may have many hearings — for deciding a temporary order, requesting a parenting evaluation, etc. Hearings take place before a judge and often focus on a single issue.

While trials are technically hearings, they stand in a class of their own because they allow parents to explore evidence in depth and question witnesses. At the end of a custody trial, a judge issues a permanent order. If you and the other parent don't settle, your case will end up at trial.

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

Make My Washington Plan Now

Note that scheduling and procedures for hearings and trials may vary by county.

If you're representing yourself, you'll need to prepare thoroughly for both types of proceedings. Review the Superior Court Civil Rules and use other custody resources at your disposal. You might also consider hiring a lawyer for advice on certain topics.


Scheduling your hearings

When you file a motion that requires a hearing, or when a judge otherwise orders a hearing, the court clerk will help you with scheduling.

Some courts hear family law matters during specific blocks of time, while others hear a variety of case types at once. Keep in mind, courts may only hear a certain number of cases in a session. This can result in some hearings getting moved to a later date.

If your county uses a case schedule, which sets a number of court dates and deadlines up front, the clerk will provide yours when you file for custody.

Typically, parents have their first hearing 30 to 60 days after filing for custody, unless they need an expedited hearing for emergency orders. Other hearings get scheduled as they become necessary.

Hearings may get delayed if a parent isn't properly notified, if a parent asks for a continuance, or if the court has a scheduling conflict.

Do not miss a hearing you've been ordered to attend. Not only does it make the judge more likely to rule against you, it could also result in contempt of court charges.

Preparing for your hearings

Tailor your arguments and evidence to the hearing's topic.

For example: If the hearing is about a residential schedule, bring a visual parenting calendar so the judge can quickly see what you believe is best for your child, but don't bring up peripheral issues like child support.

Procedures for hearings

Most hearings are quick, lasting 30 minutes to an hour. They usually take place in a courtroom open to the public, so expect other people, including those waiting for their own hearings, to watch. (Some custody issues, often those related to paternity, require confidential hearings.)

Though the judge has usually read the case file in advance, proceed as though they haven't to ensure no important information is overlooked.

Based on the information shared during a hearing, the judge can take many steps, including:

If a GAL is assigned to your case, they will appear at all hearings and the trial, unless excused by the judge.

Special hearings

Ex parte hearings: If you have evidence that your child may shortly face abduction or danger, you can request an expedited hearing to get an emergency order. When this hearing has only one parent present, it's considered "ex parte." Ex parte hearings can happen within hours of being requested.

Settlement hearings: If parents agree on a parenting plan, they inform the clerk when filing a case or anytime during the custody process. The clerk schedules a short hearing, where the judge approves the agreement, as long as this is best for the child. (Divorce settlement hearings happen at least 90 days after the filing parent serves the other parent.)

Pretrial conferences: Most cases have a pretrial conference one to four weeks before trial. At the conference, parties discuss their readiness for trial. Ask the clerk if you must attend or if your attorney can represent you.


Scheduling your trial

Trials usually take place six months to a year into a case.

Since going to trial is expensive and stressful, courts encourage parties to settle instead. Many require parents to attend mediation before resorting to trial.

The court may set your trial date (or dates) at the start of your case, but more often, the judge orders a trial after mediation fails.

Many trials last only a few hours and can be done in one sitting. Longer trials get broken into sessions spread over days (not always consecutive), weeks or, in some complicated cases, even months.

Be aware that the court may delay your trial due to requests for more time from either parent or if the court's schedule changes.

Preparing for trial

You'll need to present evidence, which can include exhibits and witnesses, to support your case.

Exhibits may consist of:

Witnesses can be anyone with knowledge relevant to the case.

Expert witnesses provide professional opinions and are appointed by the court or hired by a party. Examples of expert witnesses are parenting evaluators and medical professionals.

Lay witnesses do not offer expert opinions, but instead testify about their personal knowledge of a situation. These witnesses often include family members, friends, teachers, religious leaders, etc.

Parents almost always testify as witnesses, whereas children very rarely testify. A child will more likely do an interview with the judge outside of the courtroom.

No witness can testify to hearsay (something they did not directly observe).

Speak with your witnesses ahead of trial to answer any questions and help them prepare. If you have an attorney, they can do this for you.

Parents learn about each other's evidence through a process called discovery, which can last weeks or months. During discovery, each parent can interview the other's witnesses. They can also require each other to share personal documents relevant to the case, such as emails or financial statements.

Procedures for trial

Trials take place in a courtroom in front of a judge and without a jury. Each parent sits with their attorney and interpreter, if applicable. Family, friends and the public sit in the gallery behind them.

Trials are open to the public, but extraordinary circumstances may require the court to limit access.

If you have an attorney, they will do all the speaking for you, except when you answer questions from them as a witness. If you represent yourself, you will have to present exhibits, question witnesses and give testimony on your own.

To begin, the judge hears opening statements from both parties.

The parent who filed the case (the petitioner) calls their witnesses and presents their exhibits first. The other parent (the respondent) can also question these witnesses, called cross-examination.

Next, the respondent calls their own witnesses and presents exhibits. The plaintiff can now cross-examine.

Finally, both parties give closing arguments to summarize their points.

Frequently, judges announce rulings immediately following closing arguments, but sometimes they wait days or even weeks. Rulings become permanent orders once put on paper and signed by a judge.

A permanent order replaces any temporary orders in the case. Your options for changing a permanent order include appealing to a higher court (if there was a legal error) or applying for a modification (if your circumstances change substantially).

Tips for hearings and trials

  • Dress like you're going to a job interview.
  • Arrive early so you can find your courtroom, and keep your calendar open for the day.
  • Do not bring your child, unless they are testifying (which is rare).
  • Don't talk about the case in or near the courthouse.
  • Show respect to everyone. Refer to the judge as "Your Honor," and never interrupt.
  • Don't be too friendly with witnesses who are supposed to appear unbiased.
  • Be honest when you are testifying; you are under oath.
  • Take your time answering questions, but don't ramble.
  • Ask for clarification if you don't understand a question.
  • Admit when you don't know something.
  • Remain respectful even if you are upset by the judge's decision.

Staying organized

Custody hearings and trials require serious organization.

With a parenting plan template, residential calendars, a parenting time calculator and beyond, the Custody X Change app makes sure you're prepared and structured.

Take advantage of our technology to get what's best for your children.

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

Make My Washington Plan Now

Explore examples of common schedules

Explore common schedules

Join the 60,000+ other parents who have used our co-parenting tools

Organize your evidence

Track your expenses, journal what happens, and record actual time. Print organized, professional documents.

Co-parent civilly

Our parent-to-parent messaging system, which detects hostile language, lets you collaborate without the drama.

Get an accurate child support order

Child support is based on parenting time or overnights in most jurisdictions. Calculate time instead of estimating.

Succeed by negotiating

Explore options together with visual calendars and detailed parenting plans. Present alternatives and reach agreement.

Never forget an exchange or activity

Get push notifications and email reminders, sync with other calendar apps and share with the other parent.

Save up to $50,000 by avoiding court

Write your parenting agreement without lawyers. Our templates walk you through each step.

Make My Plan

Bring calm to co‑parenting. Agree on a schedule and plan. Be prepared with everything documented.

Make My Washington Plan Now

No thanks, I don't need a parenting plan