Washington State Child Custody Laws: Unmarried Parents

Get familiar with Washington State custody laws for unmarried parents

Unmarried couples with kids are more and more common in our state, leading to challenging questions in the wake of break ups. You may be wondering, “What are the Washington State custody laws for unmarried parents?” Good news. You have come to the right place.

3-minute video about Washington State custody laws for unmarried parents

Washington state custody laws for unmarried parents

Though divorce isn’t necessary to end a relationship where marriage hasn’t been involved, the way that parenting rights sometimes have to be negotiated after an unmarried couple separates in Washington bears some similarity to legal processes that people traditionally associate with divorce proceedings. For a quick overview of your rights and options, watch our short video below on pertinent Washington State child custody laws. Unmarried parents will find that they have more or less the same rights as married parents, but the path to protecting these rights can look a little different for unmarried parents, especially fathers.

In Washington State, parenting rights are not only for those who have been married. Unmarried parents who separate before or after the birth of a child have virtually the same legal opportunities and responsibilities around child custody, visitation, and child support that married parents have in cases of divorce.

As Tacoma's compassionate advocates for over 35 years, we are extremely familiar with Washington State custody laws for unmarried parents. With 50+ years of combined legal experience, there’s a good chance we’ve had a case like yours. Our family law attorneys can inform you of your rights, guide you toward the best legal tools at your disposal, and represent you with vigor and professionalism.

As Tacoma's compassionate advocates for over 35 years, our family law attorneys are experienced in working with many types of families.

Washington State Parenting Plan for Unmarried Parents

You may wonder, “What is a Washington State Parenting Plan for unmarried parents?” Most people are more familiar with the terms “custody and visitation agreement.” These terms are no longer used by the courts in Washington State. Instead, our state has adopted the language of Parenting Plans. This new terminology reflects the goal of making plans that are truly in the best interest of the child.

The Parenting Plan lays out the framework for when you will see your child or children, how you will handle making plans about their future, where they will attend school, and much more. In Washington State, Parenting Plans for unmarried parents are developed in a similar process to that of married parents who are divorcing. However, there is one very significant difference for fathers.

Unmarried father’s rights in Washington State

In Washington State, when two parents have a child without getting married, custody defaults to the mother of the child automatically. This leaves us asking, “what are an unmarried father’s rights in Washington State?” Unmarried fathers can have all the parenting rights of married fathers if they go through the extra step of establishing paternity. If both parents’ names are on the child’s birth certificate, the father already has established paternity. With paternity established, we can proceed toward creating a parenting plan that will be in the best interest of your child or children.

If you’re name isn’t on the birth certificate and you have an amicable relationship with the child’s mother, it may be possible to sign a paternity affidavit (also sometimes called Paternity Acknowledgement) stating that you are the child’s father. In this affidavit you and your former partner will swear under penalty of perjury that the person named on the form as the father is the only possible father.

In the event that this route isn’t open to you, you can go through the courts to bring a paternity action, also called a parentage petition. Court-ordered DNA testing will be used to determine if you are the child’s father. After paternity is established, the path should be clear to pursue all of your parental rights and responsibilities.

Either parent can bring a paternity action and might do so for a variety of reasons. For example, sometimes mothers will initiate a paternity proceeding to ensure that she can seek child support.

At Helland Law Group, our attorneys have the experience necessary to help guide you through the legal maze associated with trying to establish paternity, parenting plans, and child support. Contact our office for a free consultation and we can help advise you of your specific legal rights and options.

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In Washington State, who has custody of a child when the parents are not married?▾

In Washington State, when two unmarried parents have a child, custody defaults to the mother. However, if paternity is established for the father, his rights as a parent will hold equal weight in court. A legal Parenting Plan is usually the best path toward making the parenting rights and responsibilities clear for both unmarried parents. Parenting Plans spell out who the “primary residential parent” is, how much parenting time the “nonprimary residential parent” will get, what child support, if any, will be awarded, and much more.

Who is the custodial parent in Washington State?▾

Washington courts no longer use the terms “custodial parent” and “noncustodial parent.” From the court’s perspective, an all-or-nothing custody battle is rarely in the best interest of the child. Therefore, Washington uses the more child-friendly terminology of a Parenting Plan. This is a wide-reaching legal plan that spells out where the child will live, how much time each parent can expect to spend with the child, where the child will spend holidays, attend school, and much more. In the case of unmarried parents who both have established paternity, parenting plans can be established in pretty much the same process set out for married parents who are divorcing. If the father is not established as the child’s biological father, paternity must be legally established before a parenting plan can be created.

What rights does a father have to a child born out of wedlock?▾

In Washington, unmarried fathers have access to the same parenting rights as mothers, but they must first establish paternity. This is a legal process meant to establish that a man is the biological father of a child. Usually the mother’s name is stated on the child’s birth certificate making her paternity a cut-and-dry fact. Once paternity is taken care of, a Parenting Plan is usually the best way to make parenting rights and responsibilities clear.