Family Law

How do Judges Decide Child Custody in Washington

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Child custody decisions are based on a myriad of factors. Although you can’t control the outcome of a judge’s custody decision, you can give yourself and your child the best chance by understanding what a judge will consider in your case.

Washington Custody Basics

When parents separate or divorce, a court will issue a custody order governing, among other things, legal and physical custody. Physical custody is where a child resides, while legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make religious, educational, legal, medical, and other major decisions on the child’s behalf.

Parents may share legal and physical custody, or one parent may have sole physical and/or legal custody. Washington law favors joint custody arrangements whenever possible. Generally, joint physical and/or legal custody orders are appropriate when parents have a good working relationship, the parents live nearby (for physical custody), and a joint custody arrangement serves the child’s best interests. A judge will review a number of factors to determine the custody arrangement that best meets a child’s physical and emotional needs.

How Does a Judge Decide Custody?

A judge may look at any factor that affects a child’s best interests. The following factors are usually relevant in a custody case:

  • the parent-child bond
  • the child’s relationship with siblings, half-siblings, grandparents or other extended family members
  • each parent’s ability to provide the child with a stable home environment
  • each parent’s physical and emotional health
  • each parent’s employment schedule
  • the child’s physical, emotional, medical, and educational needs
  • the child’s physical and emotional health
  • the child’s ties to school, home, and community
  • the child’s preference, if of sufficient age and maturity
  • either parent’s history of substance abuse, if any
  • either parent’s history of domestic violence, if any
  • each parent’s willingness to foster a relationship between the child and the other parent, and
  • any other factor that is relevant to a child’s well-being.

The child’s relationship with each parent will be given the most weight among the factors. Ultimately, the goal of any custody arrangement is to encourage a loving, stable, and healthy relationship between each parent and the child. Although a judge will try to maximize each parent’s physical time with the child and right to make decisions on the child’s behalf, in certain situations, a joint custody arrangement may not be appropriate.

Specifically, a judge may also consider the parents’ geographical proximity, their desire to cooperate on matters involving the child, and each parent’s history of involvement with the child. These factors will play into whether a joint or sole custody arrangement is best for the child.

Will a Court Consider Parents’ Custody Agreements?

Parents can save the stress and expense of a custody trial by reaching their own custody agreement. Some couples hire a mediator to help them reach a settlement. A mediator is a neutral third-party who can facilitate negotiations between parents and help draft a final agreement. However, a mediator is not a substitute for an attorney and cannot give you or your ex legal advice.

If you’re trying to negotiate a custody settlement on your own, it’s important to be aware of basic requirements. For example, your agreement must be reasonable, in writing, and signed by both parents. A judge may reject an incomplete agreement. Therefore, it’s essential that you and your ex resolve all aspects of custody. At a minimum, your agreement should address the following:

  • legal and physical custody
  • the details of parent-time exchanges, including location and each parent’s responsibility for travel expenses
  • holiday, birthday, and school vacation visitation
  • where the child will attend school (if of school age)
  • child support
  • the child’s medical insurance coverage and each parent’s responsibility for insurance premiums, co-pays, and uncovered expenses
  • communication between the child and parent when in the other parent’s care, and
  • communications about the child.

Once your agreement is complete, signed, and notarized, you can submit it to a judge for approval. If a judge concludes that your agreement serves the child’s best interests, is reasonable, and complete, the judge can turn it into an official court order.

Can I Modify My Custody Order?

Either parent may submit a motion to modify custody if a certain period of time has passed since the previous order was issued or there’s been a substantial and material change in circumstances. What constitutes a material change in circumstances will depend on the unique facts of your case. For example, one parent’s remarriage doesn’t automatically justify a change in custody. However, if a parent remarries and suddenly has to care for several young stepchildren and moves out of the country, a court may consider adjusting custody.

Other reasons a court may modify custody include one parent’s severe illness, recent episodes of domestic violence, or one parent’s new job that requires extensive travel. Like an initial custody proceeding, a child’s best interests are central to a custody modification case. The parent seeking to change the custody arrangement bears the burden of proving that the current custody order no longer serves the child’s emotional and physical needs. A judge will typically schedule an evidentiary hearing on the request to modify custody. You should come to the hearing prepared with all relevant evidence and witnesses that support your case.

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