Unmarried Fathers' Rights in Washington State

By Cindy Chung

Updated October 19, 2019

Father And Son Playing Game On Sofa Together


Fathers do not have rights to ask for court-ordered custody, parenting time or child support until they have legally established paternity of their children according to the laws of Washington state. Married fathers generally have parental rights due to a legal presumption of fatherhood, but unmarried fathers can only assert their parental rights in the Washington courts after first establishing paternity of their children. A father must also establish paternity before seeking a say in everyday decisions about his child's life.

Laws for Acknowledged Fathers

Under the laws of Washington state, unmarried parents can agree to identify a man as their child's acknowledged father. Section 26.26.300 in the Revised Code of Washington allows parents to sign an "acknowledgment of paternity" to establish paternity of a child. Both the father and mother must sign the acknowledgement with the intention of giving legal rights to the man as the child's parent.

A man cannot obtain the legal status of an acknowledged father if the mother is married to another man at the time of the child's birth or if the mother has already acknowledged another man as the father. In these situations, the man may need to file a parentage lawsuit in the Washington court.

Laws for Adjudicated Fathers

Unmarried fathers can also gain parental rights through court adjudication if their child's mother will not agree to identify them as the acknowledged father. To establish paternity, a father may file a Petition to Establish Parentage in the state court in his local Washington county. If the child's mother agrees with him regarding paternity, the court may issue a parentage order without significant evidence.

If the child's mother does not cooperate, however, the court may order genetic testing before confirming the unmarried father's legal relationship to the child. The man becomes the child's adjudicated father when the court issues an order of parentage.

Comparison to Presumed Fathers

Unlike with acknowledged and adjudicated fathers, Washington state law does not require that presumed fathers take any additional actions before they can seek to assert their parental rights in state court proceedings. A presumed father generally establishes paternity and the accompanying parental rights through marriage to the child's mother.

A man who married the child's mother before the child's birth, or a divorced or separated man who was married to the child's mother within 300 days of the child's birth, falls under the presumption in Washington law that identifies him to be the child's legal father.

Requests for Court-Ordered Parental Rights

A man who is the child's acknowledged father, adjudicated father or presumed father may file an action in the Washington courts for a parenting plan or residential schedule that sets forth each parent's custodial rights and visitation with the child. He can request a court order according to his preferences for parenting time and the court will consider the request according to the laws of Washington state.

If the child's mother files her own petition for a parenting plan or residential schedule, the father can disagree with her and respond with his own proposed parenting plan that reflects his preferences for custody and visitation. Under Washington law, the court can limit a father or mother's legal rights if the parent has neglected or abandoned the child in the past, if the parent has perpetrated abuse or a violent crime, or if the court specifies another justification.


You can use your parenting plan to cover matters besides child custody and visitation. It can also deal with how the two of you make decisions about children's medical care, schooling and other everyday questions. Even married couples don't always agree on these things, so having a plan can make shared parenthood run smoother.