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How to Get Custody of Your Child in Washington State

How to Get Custody of Your Child in Washington State

If you’re looking for information about gaining custody or modifying parenting plans in Washington State, you’ve come to the right place! Navigating the legal system on a low income can be challenging. Without the benefit of a lawyer, the laws and legal loopholes can be overwhelming and complicated. It can be even more stressful when your precious children are involved.


For example, Washington State laws don’t even refer to “custody” or “visitation” at all! To find the laws on this topic, you’ll need to keep an eye out for references to Washington State “parenting plans.”

I was recently contacted by a dear friend who is unhappy with her current court-ordered parenting plan. She wants to modify it but doesn’t know how. If this sounds familiar, I hope this information can help you also!

What is a parenting plan?

Parenting plans include custody details, such as which parent keeps the child and where, as well as how the parents will make important decisions regarding the children and how future disputes will be resolved. The parenting plan also includes details regarding transportation arrangements, education decisions, health care decisions, religious upbringing and more.

Ideally, parents work together to develop a parenting plan they can agree on. However, if parents cannot agree, the judge will make final decisions for them.


Even if the parents do agree, the judge will review the final parenting plan. During this review, the judge will look at each parent’s ability to maintain a loving, stable relationship with the child(ren), provide for their basic needs, be involved with their education, and exercise sound judgment.

When can you change a parenting plan?

Parenting plans are always subject to change. However, Washington State law states that the court shall not change a custody decree or parenting plan UNLESS there has been a major change in circumstances and change is necessary to serve the best interests of the child.  You will need to prove that the present plan is detrimental to the child’s physical, mental or emotional health.

How do I change my parenting plan? summarizes the process this way:

“To change a parenting plan, you will need to go to the court that issued the order (even if you have moved).  You will need to file a motion for a change in the parenting plan and an affidavit which states the facts supporting the request.  The other parent will then receive a copy of these documents so that s/he has the opportunity to file a response or tell his/her side of the story. The judge will then make a decision based on these affidavits about whether or not you have shown adequate cause to have a hearing.  If the judge decides you have shown adequate cause, a hearing will be scheduled so that the judge can make a decision on your motion (request).” (

You can find the paperwork you need on the Washington Courts website by clicking here. When you file the motion, you will be referred to as the “moving parent.” You will be required to show a “substantial change” in the circumstances of the child or the other parent AND that the change is needed to serve the child’s best interests.

If you are requesting a major change, you will need to prove that the change is needed at an Adequate Cause Hearing. Lawyer Gregory L. Davies nicely summarizes the different types of changes (major modifications, minor modifications and adjustments) on his website. 

Obviously, it’s very helpful to have a lawyer assist you with this process. Although lawyers can be very expensive, there are many that offer low-cost legal help in Washington. Some of these include:

What happens if my request is denied?

Usually, nothing. If the judge determines that you filed the motion in bad faith, you may be required to pay the other parent’s court costs and attorney’s fees… but merely failing to prove your point isn’t the same thing as acting in bad faith.


The law defines bad faith as follows:

“An attempt by a parent, in either the negotiation or the performance of a parenting plan, to condition one aspect of the parenting plan upon another, to condition payment of child support upon an aspect of the parenting plan, to refuse to pay ordered child support, to refuse to perform the duties provided in the parenting plan, or to hinder the performance by the other parent of duties provided in the parenting plan, shall be deemed bad faith and shall be punished by the court by holding the party in contempt of court and by awarding to the aggrieved party reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs incidental in bringing a motion for contempt of court.” (RCW 26.09.160(1))

Any other questions? Let me know in the comments!