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Understanding Child Custody Laws: A Guide for Divorcing Parents

Divorce is an option for couples who no longer have a viable marriage. When a couple has children, it changes the family dynamic and can make life difficult for children as they adjust to the new normal. It is estimated that about half of all children in the United States will be affected by divorce at some time in their lives. Parents, therefore, need to take care when they make decisions that will impact their children. It is helpful for parents to understand child custody laws and how they apply to the decisions they make about their children. 

Child Custody in Washington

It is important to understand child custody in Washington State. You may be familiar with the concepts of child custody and visitation. However, Washington State does not use these specific terms. Instead, Washington uses a parenting plan to provide guidance for where a child will reside and how parents will make decisions for their child. The goal of the court system is to act in the child’s best interest. The law begins with the presumption that both parents are equally capable of caring for their child. Shared custody arrangements require a parenting plan. 

Establishing Jurisdiction

Before the court will handle any type of custody review, they must first establish that they have jurisdiction over the child. In Washington State, the court has jurisdiction if the child has lived with a parent in the state of Washington for a period of at least six months before filing for divorce. The court has jurisdiction over a child in which Washington is his or her home state. This is true for a child under the age of 6 months who has lived in the state since birth. It is important to note that the law presumes biological parentage for a child born to parents within 300 days of the end of their marriage or domestic partnership. 

Parenting Plan

The parenting plan is the primary document that provides where a child lives, how parents make decisions for the child, and how and when the child will spend time with each parent. A parenting plan should be as specific as possible. It should include a schedule that details where the child will spend weekdays, weekends, vacations, school holidays, and other special occasions. The plans should specify transportation for each type of situation. If parents are unable to agree to a uniform parenting plan, the judge may request each party to create their own plan to work with to create a suitable plan. A qualified family law attorney will help you with your parenting plan. 

Factors the Judge Considers When Determining Custody

Judges generally prefer to approve parenting plans that both parents have agreed to. The court will review the parenting plan to ensure that it puts the interests of the child first and foremost. There are a number of factors that a judge will evaluate to determine custody. 

  • Each parent’s ability to provide a stable, loving environment

  • Each parent’s ability to fulfill a child’s basic needs

  • Each parent’s involvement with the children on a daily basis (home, school, activities)

  • Financial ability to support the child

  • Each parent’s demonstration of good judgment and decision-making skills

The judge will take all relevant factors into consideration, including other factors not listed. The courts will likely want to provide for the child with an arrangement that is least disruptive to the norm. For instance, the judge may determine the parent who provided the most care on a regular basis and try to maintain stability. 

When Might a Judge Limit or Deny Parenting Time?

Generally, both parents are allowed to have regular and ongoing contact with their child. However, there are some situations that could cause a judge to limit the time spent with a parent, require supervision during visits, or deny visits completely. When a parent or someone living with the parent has engaged in poor behaviors or illegal behaviors, the court may put a reduced visitation schedule in place. Some of these potential behaviors include:

  • Willful abandonment

  • Physical or emotional abuse of the child (or any child)

  • Domestic violence

  • Conviction of sexual crimes

  • Substance abuse

The judge will also look to determine whether the child and parent have a strong emotional bond. If the court determines that a parent has engaged in behavior, such as domestic violence, that limits contact with the child, they may require the parent to successfully complete counseling before a normal visitation schedule will be allowed. 

What Does“Best Interests of the Child” Mean?

The courts will always do what is in the best interests of the child above all else. When deciding on shared custody, the judge will evaluate the ability and desire of the parents to work together as co-parents. They will also look at the physical proximity of parents to each other and the history of being able to successfully parent when they were together. Additionally, when it comes to the best interest of the child, the judge will look at some other factors. 

Some of the factors the court will consider when deciding in the best interest of a child include the relationship the child has with each parent, the relationship the child has with siblings, the child’s emotional and developmental needs, the child’s relationship with extended family members, and the amount of time the parent will be able to spend with the child. The judge also looks at each parent’s role in providing regular care for the child and the mental health of each parent. In situations where the child is older, the court may consider the wishes of the child. Any other factors that are relevant will also be considered by the judge. 

Resolving Child Custody Disputes

Sometimes, parents have conflicts regarding the custody of their children. When the parents cannot come to an agreement, the couple may benefit from the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). ADR methods available to help resolve disputes are counseling, mediation, and arbitration. Often, mediation is a viable resource that is useful to parents. Parents meet with a qualified third party with experience and training assisting with dispute resolution. Mediators help parents come to a decision together. An arbitrator is similar to a mediator, however, the arbitrator makes a decision if parents are unable. 

Decisions regarding your children can be extremely difficult to make. You will need to set aside your personal feelings to make decisions that are best for your child. A knowledgeable divorce attorney will help you through the process. To learn more about child custody, contact us at View Ridge Family Law & Estate Planning at (206) 966-4020 today. 

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