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What are the rights of non-parental caregivers in Washington?

Understanding the Legal Standing of Non-Parental Caregivers in Washington

In Washington State, non-parental caregivers, often referred to as third-party caregivers, play a crucial role in the upbringing of children when parents are unable or unwilling to do so. These caregivers can be grandparents, other relatives, or even family friends who step in to provide care. Understanding their rights is essential for ensuring the welfare of the children they look after.

Non-Parental Custody

Non-parental caregivers have the legal right to seek custody of a child through non-parental custody actions, formerly known as guardianship. According to RCW 26.10, these actions can be granted if the court finds that the child is not in the physical custody of one of its parents or that neither parent is a suitable custodian.

A historical reference illustrating this is the case of 'In re Custody of Shields', where non-parental custody was awarded to the grandparents because both biological parents were deemed unfit. This landmark case set an important precedent for non-parental rights in Washington.

Visitation Rights

Washington law also recognizes visitation rights for non-parental caregivers under certain conditions. If a caregiver has established an ongoing and substantial relationship with a child, they may petition for visitation rights. The courts will consider the best interests of the child when determining whether to grant such rights.

De Facto Parentage

In some cases, non-parental caregivers can be recognized as 'de facto' parents. A de facto parent is someone who has fully and completely undertaken a permanent, unequivocal, committed, and responsible parental role in a child's life. Recognition of de facto parentage grants legal standing equivalent to that of a biological parent.

Legal Guardianship

Beyond custody, non-parental caregivers can also seek legal guardianship, which provides them with the legal authority to make decisions on behalf of a minor child. This includes decisions about education, health care, and general welfare.


The state of Washington provides avenues for non-parental caregivers to establish legal relationships with children under their care. Through custody actions, visitation rights, de facto parentage, and guardianship, these caregivers can ensure that they have the necessary legal standing to make critical decisions in the best interests of the children they are raising.