Court Process: 7 Steps to Child Custody in Washington
Litigating custody in Washington consists of seven main steps. Some may be skipped or rearranged and others added, depending on your circumstances and county.
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Step 1: Preparation
It's a good idea to meet with a lawyer to develop a strategy. If you're unable to hire one, at least do a free or low-cost consultation for advice. Self-representing parents should familiarize themselves with the local court rules, as the court will treat them like an attorney.
Step 2: Opening a case
To ask for custody, you must open a case with the superior court where you live or where the other parent lives. It may be a stand-alone custody case or a divorce, legal separation, annulment or parentage (paternity) case.
After filing the initial paperwork, serve the other parent to officially notify them. They can then file their response with the court.
Possible: Emergency orders hearing
If your child is at risk of being harmed or removed from the state, you can request an accelerated hearing to decide if an emergency order is necessary.
If the judge allows the accelerated hearing and issues an emergency order, he or she will schedule a later hearing to decide whether to extend the order, terminate it or replace it with a temporary order.
Many counties require parents to use an alternative dispute resolution method before their case can continue. Mediation is most common. Only a judge or family law commissioner can waive this requirement, usually for domestic violence.
Step 3: Hearings
Hearings are opportunities for you to briefly present your argument and evidence to the judge so he or she can determine what to do next.
After reviewing the facts, the judge can take several actions, including:
- Ordering a parenting evaluation to have a mental health professional weigh in
- Assigning a guardian ad litem to act as a witness for the court
- Assigning a parenting coordinator to help parents communicate in high-conflict cases
- Giving temporary orders to last the duration of custody proceedings
- Ordering another hearing or a trial
Your family's circumstances will influence how many hearings you have throughout your case — maybe one, maybe ten. Hearings typically get scheduled at the request of a parent.
Step 4: Parenting class
All counties require both parents to attend a parenting class approved by the court. These classes focus on how divorce and separation affect children.
Accepted courses vary by county, so ask your court for specifics. Most last several hours, and you generally don't have to attend with the other parent.
Step 5: Discovery
Discovery is the process in which parties request information from one another to prepare for trial. It involves both written discovery and depositions.
Written discovery includes interrogatories (written questions for parents or witnesses) and requests for records, such as financial or health documents. You must respond within 30 days of receiving an interrogatory or request for documents.
Depositions are interviews conducted under oath. Attorneys ask questions of parents and witnesses, who must answer. Depositions typically occur after written discovery so lawyers know where to focus their questions.
The court can sanction parties who refuse to participate in discovery or who respond dishonestly.
Because discovery can last months, parents may have to attend hearings and complete other court requirements during this process.
Step 6: Trial
If parents don't settle, their case will ultimately go to trial.
Trials can last hours, days, weeks or even months while parents present all their evidence so the judge can issue a permanent order.
There's often a significant waiting period between the last hearing and the trial because court calendars fill up and lawyers need time to gather additional evidence.
Step 7: Permanent order
To bring the court process to a close, the judge will sign a permanent order, which lays out the legal terms parents must abide by until their child turns 18 or is emancipated. The details are decided either by a judge after a trial or by the parties themselves through settlement.
If a parent believes the court made an error, he or she can appeal to a higher court.
Down the road, parents might ask the court to modify the permanent order. As children grow older and their lifestyles change, orders often need to be modified several times.
If the other parent doesn't follow the order, you should keep a custody journal and gather evidence of the violations. For serious or repeat violations, you can file a motion for contempt with the court.
Throughout your case
During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft residential schedules, track your time with your child, and more.
The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this in one place.
Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.