Washington Child Custody Overview

While the term child custody is used informally throughout Washington state, it's important to note that the courts avoid it.

In your court paperwork and appearances, you should instead use the terms decision-making responsibility (known as legal custody in other states), residential schedule (known as physical custody in other states) and parenting plan (the court order that lays out details of both).

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A parenting plan first addresses who can make major decisions for the child.

With joint decision-making responsibility, both parents can make decisions. The plan specifies how they must collaborate. For instance, they may have to agree on education decisions, while the mother gets final say on issues related to religion.

With sole decision-making responsibility, one parent makes all major decisions for the child. The other parent can make day-to-day and emergency decisions only while caring for the child.

Judges favor joint decision-making responsibility whenever evidence shows it's in the child's best interests, though parents can agree to sole decision-making responsibility.

Residential schedules

Next, a parenting plan lays out when the child spends time with each parent.

In a joint residential schedule, the child lives with each parent, though the ratio between homes varies.

In a sole residential schedule, the child lives with one of the parents and may or may not visit the other parent. (It's not uncommon for a family to have a sole residential schedule with shared decision-making responsibility.)

Judges favor a joint residential schedule whenever evidence shows it's in the child's best interests, though parents can agree to a sole residential schedule.

No matter the schedule, if both parents spend time with the child, the parent who gets more time is called the primary residential parent, and the other parent is known as the nonprimary residential parent. This is important when calculating child support.

Starting the custody process

Before the court can assign custody, one parent must open a case. Even if you're ready to settle, one parent has to open a case before the court can approve and enforce your agreement.

You can request custody as part of a divorce, legal separation, annulment or paternity case. Or you can open a case focused just on custody (with child support included optionally).

Benefits of settling

Courts and custody professionals encourage parents to settle cases whenever possible. Settling allows parents to make decisions together, saves time and money, and keeps the court from becoming overburdened.

Most counties require parents to attend at least one mediation session before resorting to trial. Courts sometimes waive this requirement, most often due to domestic violence.

You may also turn to alternative dispute resolution methods like collaborative law and early neutral evaluation to help you reach a settlement.

Length of custody proceedings

The more parents disagree, the longer the custody process takes.

Parents can settle their case as soon as they reach an agreement, though divorcing parents must wait 90 days after the initial service before a judge will finalize orders.

On the other hand, most cases that go to trial last anywhere from six to 12 months.

Costs to expect

The cost of litigating custody varies, but complex and contentious cases are the most expensive.

Depending on their location and expertise, lawyers can charge $200 to $500 per hour. If you go to trial, expect to pay thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Even a straightforward trial can cost you $5,000 or more.

Some firms offer pro bono (free) legal aid to low-income parents. You can also represent yourself (details below) to save money, but experts don't recommend this.

Depending on your case, you may have to pay specialists like a parenting evaluator or a parenting coordinator, as well.

Settling usually costs less than litigating because it proceeds faster. The sooner you settle, the more you save.

Representing yourself

Experts advise against representing yourself instead of hiring an attorney. Law is highly complex, and your representation will impact your permanent order.

Self-representing parties (pro se parties, in legal speak) must follow the same rules and procedures as lawyers. Failure to file the proper paperwork or adhere to court procedures could negatively impact your case. Be aware, nobody at the court can provide legal advice or help fill out forms.

When resolving custody via collaborative law, you must hire an attorney.

If you and the other parent reach a settlement on your own, you should have all paperwork looked over by a professional.


Custody hearings and trials are open to the public. However, judges may limit access for high-profile cases or for certain custody issues, often related to paternity.

Court files, in general, are public records. However, certain family law documents remain confidential, such as reports from parenting evaluations. Only a handful of people, including the judge, the parties and their lawyers, can access these.

Victims of domestic violence can request to have their personal information concealed, which courts typically allow.

You can request confidentiality for other documents, but courts don't grant these requests easily.

Children in court

In most instances, your child should not attend custody hearings or trials.

If a child wants to express their wishes regarding custody, the judge generally interviews them behind closed doors. The court reporter transcribes the conversation, which is made available to parents and their lawyers. Parents can choose together not to have the conversation transcribed.

If your child is mature enough, the judge might allow them to testify in court, particularly if the child wants to comment on abuse allegations.

More information

For more details, see Title 26 of the Revised Code of Washington or other custody resources.

Staying organized

The process of deciding custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple residential schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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