Unmarried Couples: Washington Parenting Law

Basic information about Washington State law that applies to parenting when unmarried couples separate. #3912EN

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Yes, you should read this if:

  • You want to learn about state law on issues unmarried couples with children face when they break up.
  • You live or lived together as a couple in Washington.

Unmarried Couples: Washington Property Law explains state law on property law issues.

Yes. Even if you cannot afford to hire one, a family law attorney will sometimes take on part of the case, or give advice at a family law clinic.

A lawyer can:

  • Explain local practice
  • Tell you if you have a strong case
  • Help you see what claims you might make and your rights and responsibilities
  • Tell you what practical steps you can take

The law in this area can change. It can be hard to figure out what your rights are and what to do.

Even if you cannot afford to pay a lawyer to represent you for the entire case, one may agree to do part of it. You might be able to talk to a lawyer at a free legal clinic.

See “Get Legal Help” at the end of this publication for resources.

No. You must have a marriage license (RCW 26.04.140) and a valid marriage ceremony (RCW 26.04.070).

Washington recognizes common law marriages from another state if that state allows them.

Motherhood is typically established by giving birth to or adopting a child RCW 26.26.101(1).

Fatherhood (RCW 26.26.101(2)) is most commonly established by one of these:

  • a court (parentage) case
  • being married to the mother at or soon after the child’s birth
  • adoption
  • filing an Acknowledgment of Parentage with the state

* Neither parent has a greater legal right to have the child live with them until the court enters an order.

It is a form both parents sign and file with the Washington Department of Health stating that the person the form names is the only possible father. It used to be called apaternity acknowledgmentorpaternity affidavit.

Hospital staff usually gives an unmarried mother this form in the hospital after the child’s birth. The parents often sign it before the child goes home. You can also sign it later.

When you file it with the Department of Health, it has the effect of a court order establishing the person named the child’s legal parent (RCW 26.26A.220). This is true even if anyone who signed it is under age 18 (RCW 26.26A. 215).

  • A signed and filed acknowledgment of parentage naming you a parent gives you all a parent’s legal rights and responsibilities. These include the right to get a parenting plan and the responsibility to pay child support.

An acknowledgment of parentage does not automatically create a parenting plan or child support order. It just gives you the right to get these.

Yes. One party or the State of Washington can file a parentage case in Superior Court.

You can ask the court:

  • To establish legally who the child’s parents are.
  • To approve a parenting plan and/or set child support (usually).

Read Parentage and Parenting Plans to learn more.


The Washington State Division of Child Support (DCS) may file a parentage case in court or establish an administrative child support order if one of these is true:

  • You ask for services
  • The child gets welfare benefits

If you do not have an acknowledgment of parentage, you can ask the State to file a parentage case on your child’s behalf. The prosecutor does not represent either parent. Read Parentage and Parenting Plans to learn more.

If you only want the other parent to pay child support, DCS can start a procedure to get an administrative support order. They will often do this if you already filed an acknowledgment of parentage. Read How Can I Collect Child Support? to learn more.

  • DCS will not help you get a parenting plan.

An administrative child support order is good until a court order changes or replaces it. Court orders usually do not cancel amounts already due under administrative support orders.

  • Washington law does not talk about “custody” or “visitation.” It calls court orders between parents parenting plans or residential schedules.

You can file in court for a Parenting Plan, which orders:

  • Custody and a visitation schedule
  • Who gets to make major, non-emergency decisions about the child
  • How the parents will work out major disagreements

* A court-ordered residential schedule only covers items in the first point.

The last page here lists self-help packets with forms and instructions you can use.

Yes. You will usually file a parentage case or a petition for a parenting plan.

If the parents agree on a proposed Parenting Plan, the court will usually approve it.

If you do not agree, the court will enter a Parenting Plan after a hearing or trial. The court will look at many things. The most important thing is the child’s best interests.

  • See below for a list of resources with more about parenting plan laws.

It depends. You can sometimes get parentage and child support without filing a lawsuit. Only a court can create a binding parenting plan.

Sometimes during the court process, you might be able to work out a settlement. You can turn your agreement into a court order for the judge to sign. This is often easier and cheaper than going to trial.

If you are a nonparent, and the parents want you to take care of the child, they can give you power of attorney of the child in temporary situations.

You do not have to go to court to get power of attorney. Power of attorney can last for up to two years.

Read Power of Attorney (POA) for Parents to for help deciding if this option makes sense for you.

If you are a survivor of domestic violence, you may be able to get a Domestic Violence Protection Order. You can get the forms from the court clerk or your local domestic violence program.

You can also use our do-it-yourself interview program, Washington Forms Online, to fill out the forms at WashingtonLawHelp.org.

If you are a Tribal Member or living in a Tribal Community or on a Reservation, you may have the choice of filing for a protection order in a State Court or a Tribal Court. Each Tribe's code and/or process may differ.

Contact the Tribal Court to learn more.

State court forms may not work in Tribal Court.

  • If you are a survivor of domestic violence, you should also try to get help from your local domestic violence shelter. Shelters provide services such as safety planning, temporary shelter, legal advocacy, and counseling.
  • To find the domestic violence shelter nearest to you, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−7233.

Generally, you may ask for temporary orders, such as restraining orders, at any time before your case is finalized.


You must file a Petition for De Facto Parentage (RCW 26.26A.440) and prove all these to the court:

  • You lived with the child for some time
  • You consistently took care of the child
  • You took care of the child without expecting to be paid for it
  • You have a “parent-like” relationship with the child
  • You held the child out as your own
  • You had a bonded, dependent, parent-like relationship with the child
  • The child’s birth or adoptive parent supported this relationship
  • Continuing your relationship is in the child’s best interest

Starting in 2021, you must file a minor guardianship case. This practice is still new and developing in 2022.

Each court may handle this type of case a little differently. Read Non-Parent Custody is Changing to Minor Guardianship to learn more.

You can file a court case to ask for visits. It might be hard to win this kind of case.

Read Washington’s Non-Parent Visitation Rights to learn more.

You can file in the county where the child lives (RCW 26.26A.420, RCW 26.10.030).

If the child does not currently live in Washington, you can file in the county where the other parent lives (RCW 26.26A.420).

If another state has entered a custody order, or the child does not live in Washington now or has not lived here very long, you may not be able to get a parenting plan here. Talk with a lawyer or read Parentage and Parenting Plans to learn more..

Some counties do not permit this. Talk to a lawyer in your community to find out about your court’s practice.

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Get Legal Help

Visit Northwest Justice Project to find out how to get legal help. 

Last Review and Update: Aug 24, 2022
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