If you have children, obtaining your desired custody rights will likely be one of the most important – and potentially most emotional – aspects of your divorce. This is to be expected, and as Tacoma divorce attorneys, we regularly represent clients in collaborative and contested divorces where custody rights are top of mind for all parties involved.
If you are seeking custody rights in a divorce, it is important to have at least a basic understanding of how custody rights are handled under Washington law. In this article, we provide a brief overview of the terminology and processes involved.
Understanding Custody and Visitation
Physical Custody vs. Legal Custody
In Washington, there are two distinct types of child custody. These are: (i) physical custody, and (ii) legal custody.
Physical custody refers to the right to exercise control over a child’s whereabouts. In many situations, one parent will have primary physical custody, and the other will have rights of “visitation.” However, it is becoming more common for parents to have equal time with the children, in appropriate circumstances. As discussed below, during a divorce, the parents will need to try to work together to develop a parenting plan that addresses physical custody and visitation rights in a way that serves the best interests of their children.
In contrast to physical custody, legal custody refers to the right to make important decisions on a child’s behalf. This generally includes decisions relating to things such as education, medical care, and religion, but not day-to-day decisions like what to have for lunch or whether to buy a new pair of shoes. In most circumstances, parents share decision-making on major issues, but there are some exceptions to that general rule.
Understanding Parenting Plans
Importantly, while we have used the traditional terms of physical/legal custody in the discussion above, Washington’s custody statute actually uses a unique set of terminology. This is because, in Washington, custody arrangements are based upon the concept of a “parenting plan.”
In a divorce involving children in Washington, the spouses are required to establish a parenting plan that addresses their respective rights to custody and visitation. This includes establishing either sole or mutual decision-making authority (sole or joint legal custody), as well as agreeing upon residential provisions (physical custody rights). The law requires that the residential provisions, “encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable, and nurturing relationship with the child, consistent with the child’s developmental level and the family’s social and economic circumstances.” With regard to both decision-making authority and residential provisions, the parents must ultimately make decisions (or a judge will make decisions for them) that serve the best interests of their children.
Learn More about Child Custody Rights in Washington
If you would like more information about seeking custody or establishing a parenting plan in Washington, we invite you to speak with one of our attorneys. To schedule a consultation at our offices in Tacoma, call (253) 470-2356 or send us an email today.