In Washington State you obtain a custody order by starting a case under a dissolution or parentage action.
A child born of a marriage is presumed to be the child of the married parties. The caveat at this time is that a child born of a same-sex marriage is only considered the child of the parties in Washington State and possibly other states that recognize same-sex marriage.
A child born outside a marriage must have a determination of who is the biological father. This is accomplished by genetic testing or if the parties signed a paternity affidavit that is on file with the State.
Once an action is started either party can ask the Court for temporary orders to designate a residential schedule for the child or children. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) states the Court will issue a residential schedule that is the least disruptive to the child during the pendency of the action. Depending which county you are in will determine the pendency of the actin. King County has an eleven month case schedule.
In many cases a gardian ad litem or other parenting evaluator will be appointed to assist the Court in determining what is in the child’s best interest. They will do a full evaluation usually including collateral contacts with relatives, doctors and schools as well as home visits.
There are many layers to child custody so it is important to seek legal advice at the very start of a case. Often times what a Court determines on a temporary basis is close to what the final parenting plan will look like. Once there is a final parenting plan it is extremely difficult to modify absent agreement.
Modifying a parenting plan is known as a minor or major modification. Prior to starting a modification you must adhere to the dispute resolution provision in your final parenting plan. Once you are attempted dispute resolution and the matter is still unresolved you can petition the Court for a major or minor modification. As states above it is very difficult to modify a parenting plan, especially a major modification which changes the schedule by 24 or more overnights a year. The standard is high to prevent parents from attempting to disrupt a child’s schedule on a whim. The parent making the request must first prevail at an adequate cause hearing where the Court determines if there is enough evidence to allow the petition for modification to proceed.