How to File for Child Custody in Washington State
By Beverly Bird
Custody of your children can be a major issue before, during and even after divorce. During your divorce process, you may need a temporary order to hold your custody arrangement in place until your divorce is final. After divorce, circumstances may change, warranting a change of custody. Although custody litigation is never easy, the process of filing to initiate a custody decision is relatively straightforward in Washington.
Prepare a petition for dissolution of marriage. An online legal document preparation service can help you with this if your divorce is uncontested. Otherwise, Washington is one of a handful of states with an extensive library of legal documents available online from the court’s website. Paragraphs 1.3, 1.14 and 1.15 of the petition are pertinent to custody issues. Paragraph 1.3 simply asks for the names of your children and their ages. Paragraphs 1.14 and 1.15 ask you for information such as whether you and your spouse have ever litigated custody before, and with whom your children have lived for the past five years. On the last page, under Section II -- your requested "relief" -- check the second box, asking the court to approve your proposed parenting plan for a custody arrangement.
Prepare a parenting plan. A form for this document is also available on the court’s website. It’s an extensive document, 11 pages in all. Section I asks you to repeat the general information you gave regarding your children in your petition. Section II asks you if you want to restrict your children’s time with their other parent. If so, you must explain why. In Section III, suggest a visitation schedule for when your children will spend time with their other parent, explaining who will pick up and drop off the children and where they’ll spend both major and non-major holidays. Use Section IV to tell the court if you’re willing to share decision-making rights with your children’s other parent -- and, if not, why. In Section V, you must propose a plan for the court regarding how you’ll work out any future custody disputes with your spouse.
Sign your parenting plan on the last page, attesting that you’re presenting it to the court in good faith. This generally means that you honestly believe the plan to be in the best interests of your children. If you and your spouse are in agreement about custody, you can sign the plan jointly and submit it together. Don’t write anything in the last section, Section VIII. This is where the judge will sign when and if he approves your plan.
File your petition and parenting plan in the Washington county where you’re seeking a divorce. You can file them simultaneously, or -- if you need additional time to complete the parenting plan -- you can submit the plan after you file for divorce. If you and your spouse file the parenting plan together, the judge may approve it without a hearing. Otherwise, he will schedule a hearing to determine temporary custody until he issues a decision regarding final custody at your divorce trial.
Consult with an attorney if you want to change your custody arrangement post-divorce, after it has been incorporated into your decree. Washington courts are reluctant to change custody without a compelling reason, and you’ll probably need firm, provable grounds. An attorney can tell you if your reason for changing custody is something that will stand up in court, such as that you’ve had to take your ex back to court repeatedly because he’s broken the custody terms of the decree, or that circumstances in your ex’s home have changed dramatically and now pose a threat to your child’s well-being.
Access a petition for custody modification from Washington’s court website. Complete the petition, explaining the new custody terms you would like the court to order, and why you feel a modification is necessary.
Attach a certified copy of your divorce decree or other custody order to your petition. A certified copy is an official copy, which you can request from the court clerk. Generally, you cannot use a photocopy. Sign the petition and file it with the court. If you and your ex agree to a change of custody, you can file the petition together, and the court will usually grant your request. Otherwise, the judge will probably order a hearing.
Washington courts prefer to award shared parenting. This means that you and your ex should both have ample time with your children post-divorce, regardless of which parent they live with most often, and that you should each take an active role in making important decisions on your children’s behalf. If you deviate too far from this type of arrangement in your parenting plan, you’ll probably need compelling evidence to convince the court that your suggested custody arrangement is in your children's best interests. Although you can file the paperwork for custody on your own, you might want to seek the help of an attorney or online legal service.
If you suggest in your original parenting plan that you'll attend mediation or attempt some other dispute resolution if you find that your custody arrangement doesn't work, the court will probably require you to make good on this before you're permitted to file a petition for modification.
- Washington Courts: Court Forms – Dissolution (Divorce)
- Engel Law Group: Parenting Plans and Temporary Custody
- Matt Perkins, Attorney at Law: Do-It-Yourself Divorce
- Attorneys.com: The Basics of Washington State Custody Laws
- Washington Courts: Court Forms – Parenting Plan/Residential Schedule Modifications
- Washington State Legislature: Modification of Parenting Plan or Custody Decree
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.