Child Custody in Washington State


Area of Law: 

In Washington State, the concepts of child custody and visitation have been replaced with a system of scheduling known as a "Parenting Plan." The purpose of a Parenting Plan is to lay forth the specific times that the child will spend with each parent. If the parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, the court makes those decisions based on what it considers to be in the best interest of the child. A parenting plan sets out details such as when the child will be with each parent, which parent will make what decisions regarding the child, how disputes between the parents will be resolved, and any limits on parenting functions. provides a complete summary of divorce and custody laws in the state of Washington.


There are typically several different custody arrangements that may be made for children of divorced parents. In most cases, courts will award physical custody to one parent with whom the child will live most of the time. The parent with physical custody, or the custodial parent, often shares legal custody, or the right to make decisions regarding the child, with the non-custodial parent. Many child custody arrangements involve joint custody in which the child spends a relatively equal amount of time with each parent.


According to Washington State law, the court considers many factors when deciding how much time each parent should spend with the child, including the following:


  • The relative strength, nature, and stability of the child's relationship with each parent, including whether a parent has taken greater responsibility for performing parenting functions relating to the daily needs of the child
  • Any agreements the parents have made
  • Each parent's ability to perform parenting functions
  • The emotional needs and developmental level of the child
  • The child's relationship with siblings and any other significant adults
  • The child's involvement with his or her school or other activities
  • The wishes of the parents
  • The wishes of the child if he or she is sufficiently mature to express reasoned and independent preferences


In Washington State, after the parenting plan is signed by the judge and filed with the clerk in the appropriate Washington court, both parents must abide by it. If a parent is denied court-ordered access to a child, he or she may start a contempt action by filing a motion with the court. The parent who violated the parenting plan can be held in contempt of the court, fined, and jailed. The first time a parent is held in contempt, the court will require the parent to make the child available to make up the amount of time that was missed. If a parent who is designated as a "primary residential parent" is held in contempt a second time within three years, the non-residential parent can ask the court to change the parenting plan to be named the primary residential parent for the child.


Washington courts will not typically modify a parenting plan unless there has been a substantial change in the circumstances of the child or the non-moving parent, and the modification is in the best interest of the child. For a comprehensive review of child custody laws in Washington State, go to