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Parentage and Parenting Plans for Unmarried Parents in Washington

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded

This publication should help you learn the laws that apply when you have a child and you are not married to or in a registered domestic partnership with the child’s other parent.


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Section 1: Intro

Section 2: Why Should I Establish Parentage for My Child?

Section 3: How do I Establish Parentage?

Section 4: Where Should I File a Petition for Parentage or a Parenting Plan?

Section 5: Frequently Asked Questions about Parentage

Section 6: Who Will Get Custody?

Section 7: Will the Other Parent Have to Pay Child Support?

Section 8: Can I get more info?


Section 1: Intro

Read this to learn the laws when you are not married to or in a registered domestic partnership with your child’s other parent. We have info on: 

  • Figuring out if someone has legally established parentage and, if not, how to file to decide your child’s parentage.

  • Getting a custody order (parenting plan or residential schedule).

This may also help you

  • Establish legally that you are not the child’s parent.

  • Decide what you must file in court.

  • Answer basic questions. Examples:  where to file your case; how the judge decides custody.

  • Learn basic child support info.

The state Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) has changed over time. Different legal rules may apply to you. This is mainly about the newer Act, effective July 27, 2011. RCW 26.26.011, et seq. 

You can use one of our do-it-yourself packets to file a Petition to Decide Parentage or for a Parenting Plan/Residential Schedule or Child Support. Some packets may help you get court orders quickly. View a list of parentage packets.

Try to meet with a family law attorney before filing anything in court, especially if:

  • You are (or were) married to someone who is not your child’s biological parent.

  • You believe someone established parentage in another state or country.

  • The other parent will disagree with any of what you request.

  • You think Washington should not have jurisdiction over you or your children.

If you are very low-income and you live outside King County, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.

Who should NOT use this?

Do not use this if you are the parent of a child conceived through “assistive reproduction.”  This includes:

  • artificial insemination

  • donation of eggs and/or embryo

  • in vitro fertilization

  • sperm donation

If this describes you, talk to a lawyer.

Section 2: Why Should I Establish Parentage for My Child?

  • You want a legal relationship between the child and parent.

  • You do not want a legal relationship between your partner and child. (Example: your spouse or domestic partner is not the child’s biological parent.)

  • You want a court order stating whom the children will live with, how much time they will spend with the other parent, and who will make important decisions about the children.

  • You are afraid the other parent might take the child and deny you contact.

  • You want to set child support or give the child rights to inherit from the other parent.

  • You want to travel outside the U.S. with the child.

  • You want to change the child’s last name.

Section 3: How do I Establish Parentage?

There are three ways:

1. By Paternity Affidavit or Acknowledgment of Paternity

The most common official way to do this has been by having the parents sign a paternity affidavit or, after July 22, 2011, a paternity acknowledgment. Signing the acknowledgment is swearing under penalty of perjury that the person the form names is the child’s only possible father.

*To make things easier, we just say “paternity acknowledgment” to cover both affidavits and acknowledgments.  

Hospital staff give an unmarried mother a paternity acknowledgment form while she is in the hospital after the child’s birth. The parents may sign it before the child goes home for the first time. You can also sign it later.

A paternity acknowledgment is not a court order. However, filing it with the Washington State Department of Health on or after July 1, 1997 gives it the same legal effect as a court order establishing parentage. RCW 26.26.320.  

An acknowledgment is legally binding even if one or more of the people who signed it is under age 18.F RCW 26.26.315(4). A minor has until age 19 to rescind (take back) their signature on a paternity affidavit. RCW 26.26.330.3F

Washington State recognizes a paternity acknowledgment or denial filed in another state if that state does.4F RCW 26.26.350.

A paternity acknowledgment gives the person named as father all of a parent’s legal rights and responsibilities, including rights to request custody or visitation, and the responsibility to provide child support. It cannot grant custody/visitation/child support. A parent must ask for child support through the state Division of Child Support, or in court. Either parent may file a Petition for Residential Schedule/Parenting Plan or Child Support to ask for custody/support.

2. By Court Order

You can also establish parentage by filing in court to ask a judge to decide who the child’s parent is. If you do not want the State to file, or the State refuses to (see next paragraph), get a lawyer or use Filing a Petition to Decide Parentage.

If you do not have a paternity acknowledgment, you can ask the State to file for parentage. The prosecuting attorney’s office in your county has a group of prosecutors doing parentage and child support. They will not represent either parent, but will file the case and help keep it moving through the court system. Any settlement you and the other parent agree to will need the State’s approval. To ask the State to start a parentage case, contact your local prosecutor’s office or your region’s Division of Child Support office, or check the DCS website:  www1.dshs.wa.gov/dcs.

If there is no paternity acknowledgment, the court decides parentage based on the evidence presented. If you agree who the parent is, the judge may decide parentage based on that. Usually, the judge orders the parent, child, and person believed to be the other parent to take a genetic test5F. A lab gets some skin cells from each party by swabbing the inside of their mouths.  The judge can also order genetic tests of other close relatives of a parent who is unavailable for testing.7F    RCW 26.26.435. A judge can hold someone who refuses court-ordered testing in contempt of court.8F RCW 26.26.575.

After genetic testing, the judge usually rules that the person who is more than 99% likely to be the child’s biological parent is also the legal parent The judge may decide that someone who is not the child’s biological parent will be the legal parent anyway.9F
The judge can also rule against doing genetic testing. RCW 26.26.535 lists reasons a judge might deny genetic testing.

Example 1:  John signed a paternity acknowledgment swearing that he is the child’s parent. The deadline to take back the acknowledgment passed before John took legal action to prove he is not the parent after all. This may permanently establish John as the child’s parent, even if someone else is actually the biological parent.

Example 2: Mario acted as a child’s parent for the first two years of the child’s life. He later decided to challenge his parentage. The judge could decide it is not in the child’s best interest to allow the challenge. Then Mario will be the child’s legal parent permanently.10F RCW 26.26.116(2).  

The next section talks more about the situation in example 2, above.

3. By Legal Presumption

Effective July 27, 2011, the law presumes you are a child’s parent if, for the first two years of the child’s life, you lived in the same home and openly held the child out as your own. See a lawyer if this describes you or the other parent.

Section 4: Where Should I File a Petition for Parentage or a Parenting Plan?

Does Washington have personal jurisdiction over the alleged parent?

The person whose parentage the court is determining is the “alleged parent.” If you want to file a Petition for Parentage in Washington, make sure Washington has personal jurisdiction over the alleged parent.11F RCW 26.26.515(1). The Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) and Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) determine personal jurisdiction.

*If you also want a parenting plan, make sure Washington has jurisdiction over the child. See Subsection B, below.

If the alleged parent lives in Washington, you can file here. You may be able to file your case here anyway. Here are some reasons Washington may have personal jurisdiction: the alleged parent

  • Signed a paternity acknowledgment/denial in Washington.

  • Lived in Washington and supported the child financially before they were born, even if the child was not in Washington.

  • Lived in Washington with the child.

  • Brought the child to Washington to live or caused someone else to bring the child here to live.

  • Had sexual intercourse in Washington that may have resulted in the child’s conception.

  • Agrees to personal jurisdiction in Washington.

  • Responds to the parentage action without challenging personal jurisdiction.

  • Is personally served with the summons and petition for parentage in Washington.1.2F.. RCW 26.26.515(2); RCW 26.21A.100.

If there is more than one alleged parent (example:  two possible fathers), you can file for parentage here even if Washington has personal jurisdiction over only one of them. The court can only decide parentage of that alleged parent.

If genetic tests show the Washington alleged parent is not a biological parent, you may have to file a second parentage case in the state with personal jurisdiction over the other one.13F RCW 26.26.515(3). The Division of Child Support may be able to help refer you to government agencies in other states. Call them at 1-800-442-KIDS.

If the children have not always lived in Washington, Washington may not have jurisdiction over them. You can still file for parentage here. You must file for a parenting plan or custody order in the state with jurisdiction over the children. See next section.

*If the alleged parent is a Native American living on reservation land, you may have to file for parentage in tribal court.14FRCW 37.12.010. Talk to an Indian law attorney.

Does Washington have jurisdiction over the child?

If you are filing for a Parenting Plan in Washington, make sure Washington has jurisdiction over the child. See the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA).

*We do not recommend a Residential Schedule. It does not say who can make decisions for the children. A parenting plan does.

If you want a child support order as part of your Petition for Parenting Plan case, make sure Washington has personal jurisdiction over the other parent. See Subsection A, above.

If Washington does not have jurisdiction over your children, do not file for a parenting plan here. You may need to file in another state. If Washington has jurisdiction over the alleged father, you can file a Petition for Parenting Plan to ask only for child support.

*If you want only child support and not a parenting plan, you can file a Petition for a Parenting Plan in Washington and limit your request to child support.  You could also ask the Washington State DSHS Division of Child Support to help set support through an administrative process. This can be quicker and easier. Contact DCS at 1-800-442-KIDS, or see http://www.dshs.wa.gov/dcs/ for info about local offices and DCS services.

  • If your children have always lived here and no other state has entered a custody order about them, Washington has jurisdiction over your children. Skip the rest of this section.

  • If your children have not always lived here, make sure Washington has jurisdiction over them before filing for a parenting plan here. Jurisdiction is complicated. If you have questions about jurisdiction over the children, talk with a lawyer. Here are some basic guidelines:

1. If you already have a custody order, and a party to that case OR the children still live in the state that entered the order, that state still has jurisdiction over the children. You must file there. This is continuing jurisdiction.16F RCW 26.27.211. If another state has continuing jurisdiction over your children but Washington has jurisdiction over the parent, you can file a parentage case or Petition for Parenting Plan here, only about child support.  If Washington has continuing jurisdiction over your children, you can get a parenting plan here.

2. If no court has ever entered a custody order about your children, Washington has jurisdiction over them if one of these is true:

  • Your children have lived here with a parent (or someone acting as parent) for at least six months before the filing of your court case. Washington is your child’s home state.

  • Your child is less than six months old. At the time of the filing of your court case, the child has lived here with a parent or parent figure since birth. Washington is your child’s home state.
  • Washington was your child’s home state (either a. or b. were true) within six months before you filed your court case. One parent or person acting as parent has been living here since the child left the state.

3. If Washington does not have continuing jurisdiction (under 1. above) or home state jurisdiction (2. above) over your children, you may still be able to get a parenting plan or custody order here, if you can show there is an emergency or there is no home state (meeting the requirements of 2.a., 2.b., or 2.c. above). RCW 26.27.201; RCW 26.27.021.

If another state is your children’s home state, or was their home state within the last six months, Washington probably will not have jurisdiction over them until they have lived here for six months.

*You cannot agree to give Washington jurisdiction to decide custody.18F If Washington does not have jurisdiction over under the UCCJEA, you must file for custody in the state that does OR ask that state to allow Washington to take jurisdiction. To do this, talk with a lawyer.

4. Emergency jurisdiction:  Where an emergency requires court orders to protect your children from abuse, Washington may be able to take emergency jurisdiction over the children. RCW 26.27.231(1).  This usually is temporary. Washington’s orders typically will last only until someone files a case in the child’s home state, or the home state declines to hear the case. Your children must actually be here at the time you file for Washington to take emergency jurisdiction.

*If Washington takes emergency jurisdiction over your children but you want their home state to decide custody, you must file for custody there as fast as possible and have the Washington court communicate with that state. If you wait too long, Washington will become the children’s home state. Then the other state can lose jurisdiction to Washington.  RCW 26.27.231(2).

If you have questions about jurisdiction over your children, talk with a lawyer as soon as possible. Which Court Can Enter Custody Orders? Questions and Answers about Jurisdiction also has more info.

What if my paternity acknowledgment is not from Washington?

If you signed it in another state, you may still be able to file a Petition for a Parenting Plan. First, make sure Washington has jurisdiction over the children. (See Subsection B, above.) Second, you must prove to the Washington court that your acknowledgment legally established parentage in the state where you signed and filed it. Contact the agency in the state where you filed your acknowledgment. Try also to talk to a lawyer in that state, or research that state’s paternity affidavit laws. Be ready to give the Washington court written proof of the other state’s law.

What if my parentage order is not from Washington?

If you now need a parenting plan or custody order, you may be able to file a Petition for a Parenting Plan here. First, make sure Washington has jurisdiction to enter a custody order. (See subsection B, above.) If you are not sure, talk to a lawyer. Before you do so, try to get a certified copy of the parentage court order, and any other court orders from that case.

Where should I file my petition for parentage or parenting plan? 

If the child lives in Washington, you must file in the county where the child lives. If the child does not live here, you should file it in the county where the alleged parent lives or is found.  RCW 26.26.520. If neither the child nor the alleged parent lives here, you probably cannot file here. See Subsection B, above.

Section 5: Frequently Asked Questions about Parentage

What is a Paternity Denial?

You can use a paternity acknowledgment to establish that a presumed father is not a child’s legal parent.4F RCW 26.26.320. It is the same form. We call it a paternity denial when used this way.

Example:  A married woman has a baby. Her husband is not the father. The husband must sign the acknowledgment stating he is not the child’s father. The child’s mother and biological father must also sign stating that the husband is not the father, and that the biological father is the father. The husband, biological father and mother must all sign the acknowledgment for it to be legally effective. If someone will not sign, you must file a Petition for Establishment of Parentage.

*Domestic partners cannot use the paternity denial. If you are a domestic partner needing to deny parentage of your partner’s child, see a lawyer.

Can I cancel the acknowledgment or denial?

Maybe, if you act very quickly. Your deadline is probably very short. Its date of filing with the Department of Health determines your deadline and how you can challenge it.

*If you do not know the date of filing of your acknowledgment, call the Department of Health at (360) 236-4300. The receptionist may be able to tell you if an Acknowledgment is on file there. They cannot tell you other info, such as its date of filing. To get that or other info about your acknowledgment, write them for a certified copy. How do I Request a Copy of my Paternity Affidavit explains how. It can take a few weeks to get a copy.

You have 60 days, at most, from the date of filing of the acknowledgment with the Department of Health to rescind it. If there are any court hearings about the child before your 60 days have passed, you must rescind your acknowledgement by the date of the first court hearing even if it is earlier than 60 days. You must file a court action to rescind the acknowledgment. The Petition to Withdraw Paternity Acknowledgment, FL Parentage 341, and other forms you will need are available at www.courts.wa.gov/forms.

Special law for teen parents:  If you were a minor when you signed a paternity acknowledgment or denial, you have until your 19th birthday to rescind your signature.

The deadline has passed. Can I still challenge parentage?

If more than 60 days have passed since its filing, you can challenge the acknowledgment only for a few reasons. You must file a court challenge within four years of filing the acknowledgment with the Department of Health. You must prove there was fraud, duress, or major mistake of fact. RCW 26.26.335. RC6Talk to a lawyer. (Example: genetic tests show the father named in the acknowledgment is not the biological father. This could be a material mistake of fact.) 

*If more than four years have passed, you cannot challenge parentage.

The other parent’s name is on the birth certificate. Does that establish parentage?

No. The birth certificate alone does not legally establish the parent-child relationship. If you marry after the child’s birth, the birth certificate may create a legal presumption of parentage.  See RCW 26.26.116(d).

You must establish parentage to get the right to inherit money, property, or Social Security death benefits for your child if the other parent dies. A birth certificate is grounds for you to file for a Parenting Plan. RCW 26.26.375(3). You can probably also use just the birth certificate for other purposes, such as getting veteran’s benefits.

My partner and I have been together since the child was born. He has acted in every way like a parent. Does that count?

Maybe. Effective July 27, 2011, the law presumes you are a child’s parent if you do both of these for the first two years of the child’s life: You

  • Live in the same household with a child.

  • Openly hold out the child as your own.

You can file a court action before the child turns four to challenge this presumption. This can be hard. See a lawyer.

What if my spouse or domestic partner is not the child’s parent?

The law presumes that you are both the parents to a child born during your marriage or domestic partnership, or within 300 days after your marriage or domestic partnership ends (or your spouse dies). The spouse or domestic partner is a presumed parentRCW 26.26.116(1). They have all legal rights and responsibilities for the child, unless someone legally disproves their parentage.

You can challenge a spouse or domestic partner’s legal relationship with the child by filing a Petition to Disprove Parentage of Presumed Parent, FL Parentage 355, available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/. You can also have the spouse or domestic partner, mother, and child’s biological father sign a paternity acknowledgment. . RCW 26.26.310.30F

What if the wrong person is the established parent?

If you believe your paternity acknowledgment or court order names the wrong person parent, you must file a Petition to Decide Parentage (after Acknowledgment or Court Decision), FL Parentage 351, available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/, asking for an order naming the right person. Act as fast as possible. Your deadline may be very short. Talk to a lawyer, if possible.

1. The Paternity Acknowledgment or Denial is wrong

If you believe you are the child’s father, but you did not sign the paternity acknowledgment, you can file a legal challenge to the acknowledgment using a Petition to Decide Parentage (after Acknowledgment or Court Decision), FL Parentage 351, available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/. You must file no more than four years after the filing with the Department of Health of the acknowledgment you are challenging. RCW 26.26.540(2). You cannot ask the Department of Health for the acknowledgment filing date. 

If you think it has been close to or more than four years, you can file your case anyway with a motion asking the court to help you find out the filing date.

2. The Final Parentage Order is wrong

If you were a party to that court case, you must file a Motion to Vacate the Judgment and Order Establishing Parentage under Civil Rule 60. But:

  • There are only a few legal reasons for this motion.

  • You must do it within a reasonable time after entry of the final order.

Read Civil Rule 60. Talk to a lawyer. Filing a Motion to Vacate also has info.

If you were not a party to the case that established parentage, you can try to challenge the Final Parentage Order. You can file a Petition to Decide Parentage (after Acknowledgment or Court Decision), FL Parentage 351, available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/.   

I am a teenager. The person who signed my paternity acknowledgment is not my dad. Can I challenge the acknowledgment or parentage order?

Yes, if both these are true: 

  • The judge did not appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent you in the court case that established parentage.

  • Genetic testing does not support the acknowledgment or order. RCW 26.26.630(2).. . 

You can file a challenge no matter how long it has been. RCW 26.26.540(2). Use a Petition to Decide Parentage (after Acknowledgment or Court Decision), FL Parentage 351, available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/.F

What if I was sexually assaulted and got pregnant?

Read this section if:

  • The person who sexually assaulted you was convicted of or pled guilty to a sexual assault offense


  • You can prove with “clear, cogent, and convincing evidence” at a hearing that the person sexually assaulted you


  • your child was born within 320 days after the assault

You can limit the person’s contact with you and/or the child. Whether you are filing or responding to a parentage petition, the judge will hold a hearing. If the judge finds that the person who assaulted you is the child’s parent, the judge can Order that the person is NOT the child’s parent, if you request it. The judge can grant any other relief you have requested regarding child support and time with the child. 

If the judge finds the person who sexually assaulted you is the other parent, you can tell the judge

  • You do NOT want the person to have any rights to the child.

  • You do not want any child support.

The judge will honor your wishes.

*If this applies to you, talk to a lawyer and/or sexual assault victim’s advocate.

Section 6: Who Will Get Custody?

Washington courts generally do not use custody and visitation. They talk about the residential schedule and decision-making authority for the children.

Residential schedule:  As part of your parentage or parenting plan case, the judge can decide which parent the children with live with the majority of the time (or if they will live with each parent half time) and how much time the children will spend with the other parent. A judge who only deals with the child’s residence and visitation will enter a Residential Schedule.

Residential schedule plus decision-making authority:  A court entering a Parenting Plan instead of a Residential Schedule will decide the child’s residence and visitation, who will make decisions about school, medical care, and other issues, and how the parents will resolve any future disagreements about the parenting plan.

*We only discuss parenting plans. We do not recommend you ask for a Residential Schedule. It does not say who can make decisions for the children.

The way the court decides your temporary and permanent parenting plan is complicated. Talk with a lawyer.

Who needs a Parenting Plan?

If you and the other parent have children together who are under eighteen, you must fill out a parenting plan. If the other parent served you with a petition and parenting plan and you disagree with what that parent wants, you must file your own parenting plan. The court can enter a temporary parenting plan to cover the period while the case is pending. It enters a permanent parenting plan when it finalizes the case.

How does the Parenting Plan affect me?

Once a judge signs a parenting plan, it is a court order. Both parents must follow it.

If you do not follow it, the judge could find you in contempt. You might face prosecution for custodial interference unless you have a good excuse. Example of good excuse: following the order would cause you or the child serious harm.

Even then, you cannot simply refuse to follow the court order. You must return to court to ask for changes to the order.

If you do not want to follow part of a parenting plan, get the other parent’s written permission not to, or contact a lawyer. File a petition or motion to change the parenting plan as soon as you can so the judge can order a new schedule. If you believe your child may be in danger, contact Child Protective Services, State of Washington Department of Social and Health Services (CPS).

Why would a judge restrict a parent’s time with the children?

The judge must first decide if there is a reason under RCW 26.09.191 to limit a parent’s time with the children or keep that parent from any contact with them. Generally, the judge must limit a parent’s time with a child if that parent, or someone living with them, has engaged in any of these:

  • Long-term willful abandonment of the children or the parent substantially refuses to care for the children.

  • Physical, sexual, or a pattern of emotional abuse of your child or someone else’s.

  • A history of domestic violence (RCW 26.50.010(1)), or an assault or a sexual assault causing serious bodily harm or the fear of it.

  • The parent has been convicted as an adult of certain sex crimes or has been found to be a sexual predator35F   RCW 26.09.191.

The judge may limit a parent’s time if they find any of these:

  • The parent has neglected the children or has not cared for them.

  • The parent has a long-term emotional or physical problem interfering with their ability to take care of the children.

  • The parent has a long-term substance abuse problem, including alcohol, interfering with their ability to take care of the children.

  • There is no or a seriously damaged emotional bond between parent and child.

  • That parent has engaged in the abusive use of conflict, creating a danger of serious damage to the child’s psychological development.

  • The parent has denied the other parent contact with the child for a long time without good reason.

  • Other reasons unrestricted contact with the parent would be bad for the child.36F. RCW 26.09.191(3).

How does the court limit a parent’s time if it finds RCW 26.09.191 applies?

In most of these cases, the judge will not give that parent custody. In very rare and serious cases, a judge must order that parent have no contact with the child if nothing else will protect the child.37F RCW 26.09.191(m)(i). A judge could order many other restrictions.

A judge must follow specific rules if a parent or someone living with them has a conviction for certain sex crimes or a court has found in a civil case such as a CPS case that they have harmed the children. Such a parent rarely gets unsupervised contact with their children back.

*If you or the other parent in your case has such a conviction, talk with a lawyer. Read RCW 26.09.191 very carefully.  

The parenting plan can restrict the parent in any way you could reasonably expect to protect the child.8F RCW 26.09.191(m). Common restrictions include requiring that parent to

  • See the children only when supervised by a professional supervisor or neutral third party.

  • Complete domestic violence or substance abuse treatment.

  • Take random drug or alcohol tests.

  • Complete a parenting class.

  • Get counseling, or take any physician-prescribed medication for their mental health condition.

  • Complete a sexual deviancy evaluation.

  • Stop interfering with the other parent’s contact with the children.

  • Stop causing conflict or picking fights with the other parent for no good reason.

None of RCW 26.09.191 applies. Who will get custody?

The judge must consider several factors. The court must “encourage each parent to maintain a loving, stable and nurturing relationship with the child, consistent with each child’s developmental level and the family’s social and economic circumstances.”3  RCW 26.09.187(3)(a).

Mainly, the judge will probably order that the children live with the parent with whom they are most closely bonded, and who has done more of the day-to-day care. RCW 26.09.187(3)(a)(i). The judge will also consider:

  • Any knowing and voluntary agreements the parents have made.

  • Each parent’s past and future potential for taking care of the children.

  • Each child’s emotional needs and developmental level.

  • The child’s relationship with siblings and other important adults, the child’s involvement with school, and the child’s activities and community.

  • The parents’ wishes.

  • A mature child’s wishes - usually a teenager.

  • Each parent’s work schedule.41F RCW 26.09.187(3)(a).

The court should not look at:

  • Which parent earns more

  • Which parent is going to remarry

If you believe the other parent may present a danger to the children or you, consider a different type of schedule. Talk to a lawyer about what to ask for in your parenting plan.

Can we share joint custody?

Only if:

  • Neither parent has a limiting factor under RCW 26.09.191 AND

  • You have voluntarily agreed to the schedule OR

  • You have a history of cooperation and shared parenting, AND live close enough AND

  • Joint custody is in the children’s best interests. 2F. RCW 26.09.187(3)(b).

Who will make important decisions about the children?

The parenting plan will say. Either parent can make emergency decisions about the child, and can make day-to-day decisions, such as what the child will eat, or who will babysit the child, when the child is in that parent’s care.43F RCW 26.09.184(4)(a) & (b).

One or both parents can decide non-emergency decisions, such as where the child will go to school, what doctors the child sees, when the child gets medical care, and what religious institution the child goes to (if any). The judge must order that only one parent can make these decisions if a factor under RCW 26.09.191 applies to the other parent, or if neither parent wants joint decision-making. The judge can order sole decision-making to one parent who opposes joint decision-making because:

  • A factor under RCW 26.09.191 applies to the other parent.

  • The other parent does not have a history of taking part in decision-making about the children.

  • The parents do not want to and cannot cooperate in decision-making.

  • The parents do not live close enough to each other to make timely joint decisions. 4F   .RCW 26.09.187(2).

Religious upbringing: Unless the judge decides that exposure to a parent’s religious views may harm the children, the judge should let each parent give the child the religious instruction the parent chooses while the children are with that parent. This is not “joint” decision-making. It is each parent making decisions on that parent’s time and not interfering with the other parent’s decisions.

What is alternative dispute resolution?  

The parenting plan asks you to choose a way to solve future disagreements about it. “Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)” means alternatives to court. These include:

  • counseling

  • mediation

  • arbitration

You and the other parent can choose one of these. ADR can be helpful.

The judge will just have you come back to court if you disagree about the parenting plan in the future when one of these is true:

  • A factor under RCW 26.09.191 applies to a parent.

  • The parents cannot take part in dispute resolution equally.

  • One of you cannot afford alternative dispute resolution46F. RCW 26.09.187(1).

If you choose counseling, you will typically meet with a mental health professional who will use counseling techniques to help resolve your disagreement. If you choose mediation, you will meet with a mediator:  a neutral third party who may be a lawyer, retired judge or court commissioner, or mental health professional. The mediator will try to get you to come to an agreement. If you choose an arbitrator, you will meet with a neutral third party (a lawyer, or retired judge or court commissioner) who may try to help you reach agreement, but who will make a decision you both must follow if you cannot. If your parenting plan calls for arbitration, you can file a motion with the court asking for a review of the arbitrator’s decision.

You must usually pay a counselor, mediator, or arbitrator. It can cost a lot. However, ADR can help you avoid the stress, expense, and unpredictability of court.

Mediation: Should I Use It has more info.

Can I move to out of state with the children?

All parenting plans say what must happen if you want to move (relocate). The requirements include:

  • Giving the other parent notice beforehand.

  • Giving the other parent a chance to object to the move.

  • Being able to ask the court to change a parenting plan, including who the children live with, based on a parent’s move.

Read the law at RCW 26.09.405 through .560and Questions and Answers about Washington’s Relocation Law.

I just want a court order formalizing what the living arrangement has been since we established parentage. Is there an easier way to do this? 

Maybe. You can file a Motion instead of filing a petition, as long as both these are true:

  • At the time you file the motion, less than 24 months have passed since entry of the Order establishing parentage.

  • Your proposed parenting plan does not change who has custody

The form, a Motion for Parenting Plan/Residential Schedule, FL Parentage 331, is available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/forms/.

Section 7: Will the Other Parent Have to Pay Child Support?

What is child support?

It is money one parent pays the other to help support the children. A parent has a legal duty to support their children. You usually pay monthly. The amount comes from the Washington State Support Schedule.  

A judge usually cannot order an unmarried parent to pay support until after establishing parentage. There are some exceptions to this. See RCW 26.26.101, RCW 26.26.111.

In most parentage cases, the parent who does not have custody must pay child support. Even if you each have the children half time, the judge may order one of you to pay the other support if there is a big difference in your incomes.

How does the court set the child support amount?

Generally, it uses the Washington State Child Support Schedule. The Schedule works like an income tax table. The court figures out each parent’s income. It adds the parents’ incomes together and finds the amount of support on the Schedule that applies to the number and ages of children.

The court wants to make sure your children have enough money to meet their needs:  

  • clothes and food

  • rent or mortgage and utilities

  • decent daycare

  • medical care

Both parents may have to share costs for uninsured health care, daycare, school tuition, and long-distance visit expenses according to their incomes and the number of children living with them.

The court takes into account parents’ ability to pay. The parents may not have enough money to meet the children’s needs. 

How is Child Support Set has more info.

Section 8: Can I get more info?

We have other publications and packets on www.washingtonlawhelp.org, and links to help with legal research. For more info, or if you do not have internet access, visit your local law library. It is usually in your county’s Superior Court building. The library staff might be able to help.


This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of January 2018.

© 2018 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014.
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)


Last Review and Update: Jan 30, 2018