Settling Child Custody in Washington: 6 Steps

Legal professionals consider settling the best way to resolve most custody cases. Settling means parents develop a parenting plan together and file it with the court to make it a permanent order.

Doing this keeps tensions low and makes your case likely to resolve faster with reduced costs.

Divorcing parents must wait 90 days after the initial petition was served before a judge will finalize a settlement. If you're legally separating, there's typically no waiting period, but check with the court clerk in your county. Unmarried parents do not have to wait, though they must establish parentage (i.e., declare a legal father) before settling.

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Some Washington counties encourage settling by making parents try mediation or another alternative dispute resolution method before resorting to trial.

After negotiating an agreement with the other parent, follow the steps below to settle. If you hire an attorney, they will guide you through the steps and file paperwork on your behalf.

Step 1: Draft a parenting plan

First, you need to write up your agreement as a parenting plan. Be specific, as this document becomes legally enforceable once a judge signs it into an order.

The plan must explain how parents will share or divide decision-making, and it must include a residential schedule. It should not discuss child support.

You may use the court's parenting plan template or, for more flexibility and options, the Custody X Change template.

Step 2: Complete other paperwork

Next, you have additional forms to fill out. The following apply to all cases involving custody:

If you've agreed on a child support amount with the other parent, include the specifics in your child support forms. You may also create a document explaining the details.

If you've agreed to a restraining order, complete a Restraining Order and Law Enforcement Information Sheet.

Your county may have its own forms, so ask your court clerk if you should swap or add any. You may need to complete additional forms for the noncustody issues in your case.

Always have a legal professional review your documents.

Step 3: File your paperwork

Make two copies of all paperwork, including the parenting plan. One copy will be for you, and one for the other parent. The only exception: Do not make the other parent a copy of the Law Enforcement Information Sheet.

Give any originals that don't require a judge's signature to the court clerk. Then ask the clerk to arrange a settlement hearing.

Remember that settlement hearings for divorce take place at least 90 days after the initial petition in the case was served. Settlement hearings for other types of cases usually get scheduled in the soonest open slot.

Step 4: Serve the other parent

Now you have to serve the other parent with their copies of the paperwork (but never the Law Enforcement Information Sheet). If the other parent has an attorney, serve them instead.

In some counties, the court clerk will also give you a Notice of Hearing to serve. Ask about your deadline; usually, you have to get it to the other parent at least five days before the settlement hearing, not counting weekends, holidays or the day you serve. If you miss the deadline, you'll have to reschedule the hearing.

If the other parent signs a Service Accepted form agreeing to receive all necessary documents from you informally, you can hand them the paperwork yourself.

Otherwise, have the paperwork mailed or hand delivered by a friend or professional server. Unlike the documents you served when opening a case, these forms can be mailed without special court permission.

Whoever serves should complete a Proof of Mailing or Hand Delivery so you can file it with the court.

Step 5: Attend your settlement hearing

Bring any original documents the judge needs to sign to your hearing.

As long as both parents have signed the paperwork, only one parent needs to attend, but law professionals recommend that both do.

The judge may ask parents to speak about the parenting plan in their own words.

If your plan doesn't jeopardize the child's best interests, the judge will sign off.

When a judge doesn't sign domestic violence or substance abuse is often to blame. These cases typically go to trial.

Step 6: File the signed forms with the court clerk

Now, head back to the court clerk.

Hand them the documents signed by the judge to officially file as your permanent order. You will receive a copy stamped as filed, and the court will retain the originals.

Be sure to keep all documents safe, as you may need them in the future.

After you've settled

The custody journey continues after you receive a permanent order. Now your responsibilities include:

To do all of this and more, use Custody X Change.

The online app's customizable calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, expense tracker and parenting plan template will make life after settlement as straightforward as they made settlement itself.

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