Child custody laws vary from state to state, so it’s important to be aware of the laws in your state if you and your child’s other parent are not planning on staying together. While this is true in all cases, parents who were married and are now divorcing sometimes have different protections than parents who were unmarried.
In the Evergreen State, unmarried have the same rights as married parents, but sometimes the way you go about establishing those rights will be a bit different. If you are concerned about how Washington State custody laws work if you are not married to your child’s other parent, keep reading.
Washington State Custody Laws and Rights for Unmarried Parents
Whether or not you are married, as long as you and your child’s other parent have been established as the child’s parents (more on this in the next section), you both have the right to seek custody of your child. This means that whether you are the mother or the father, you have an equal right to ask for custody.
Unless a judge has said that you cannot have contact with your child, you will also have the right to visitation. Breaking up with your partner does not mean that you are breaking up with your child; in fact, it’s possible to have an excellent relationship with your child even if you break up with your child’s other parent shortly after his or her birth.
In most cases, when there are no extenuating circumstances, both parents will be awarded physical and legal custody. This means that you both will be able to spend time with your child and you both will be jointly responsible for making legal decisions, such as (but not limited to):
- Where here they go to school
- What religion they are brought up with (if any)
- Whether they can have elective medical procedures done
In some cases, one parent will be awarded sole custody and the other will be able to have supervised or unsupervised visitation. This is the case whether the parents are married or unmarried at the time of the child’s birth or at the time of the breakup.
When a couple is married, both parents are assumed by the court to be the child’s parents. When a couple is not married, however, the father will need to establish paternity. The mother who is giving birth to the child is automatically on the birth certificate, but the father might not be, depending on the circumstances. Most of the time, a paternity affidavit can be signed in the hospital when the child is born.
If that is the case, then that’s all the father needs to do to establish that he is the rightful father of the child. This affidavit can also be signed later if it isn’t done in the hospital. The father will be named on the birth certificate, and regardless of marital status, he is the child’s legal father. If the paternity affidavit wasn’t signed, however, you still have another option.
You can have non-invasive genetic testing done to prove that you are the father of your child. This is usually a cheek swab or some other simple procedure. The cells from your inner cheek will be compared with the cells of your child’s inner cheek and a DNA match will be made. This paternity test can also be done if you are not sure if you are his or her biological father.
Once parenthood has been established, you and your ex can create a parenting plan. This will be signed off by a judge, but most of the time, it does not require or involve a court appearance. In many cases, parents can come up with the terms of the plan on their own, particularly if they both assume that they will have joint physical and legal custody.
The parenting plan will outline where the child will spend his or her time. For a young baby, particularly one who is nursing, the mother might have more parenting time. Once a baby or toddler is weaned, however, the time spent with each parent is often more equitable. For a school-aged child, the child might spend alternate weeks with each of you.
Alternatively, he or she might spend most of the time with one parent and every other weekend and perhaps one weekday evening with the other parent. Then during the summer break, that might be reversed or the child might spend several weeks of the summer break with the parent who usually has them only on the weekends. There are many ways to work out the parenting schedule for joint custody.
Parenting plans will also determine where a child will spend holidays. Maybe one year, the child will spend Thanksgiving with one parent and Christmas or Hanukkah with the other, then that will switch the next year. Again, if the two of you can work it out yourselves, you will not have to leave it for a judge to decide.
When it comes to child support, the same schedules are used whether the parents are married or not. This schedule is called the Washington State Child Support Schedule, and the amount one parent pays will be determined by the income of both parents. Be aware that being able to pay child support will not impact your chances of getting custody of your child.
These are two different issues and while each is important, you won’t be barred from seeing your child if you cannot afford to pay child support. Similarly, you are not guaranteed custody if you are ordered to pay child support. If you need help relating to Washington State custody laws and are concerned about your parental rights, contact National Family Solutions.
We are a legal resource group that can help you understand what you need to do to preserve your parental rights whether or not you are or were married to your child’s other parent. We are less expensive than a private attorney and we can help in many cases. Contact us today!