What is the process for legal third-party custody in Washington?

Understanding Third-Party Custody in Washington State

In Washington State, third-party custody, also known as non-parental or 'third-party' custody, refers to a legal arrangement wherein an individual who is not the biological or adoptive parent of a child seeks and obtains custody. The process is governed by specific state laws and statutes, and it is designed to ensure the child's best interests are served when parents are unable to provide a suitable living environment.

Initiating the Custody Process

The process begins with the third party filing a petition for custody in the appropriate Washington court. This petition must include a detailed declaration stating why the third-party believes this action is in the best interest of the child and why the parents are unfit or unable to care for their child. It's essential for the petitioner to demonstrate that they have a substantial relationship with the child and that remaining with or being placed with the parents would be detrimental to the child.

Notice and Response

Once filed, notice of the custody action must be provided to all legal parents or guardians, and they are given an opportunity to respond. If they contest the petition, both sides will present their evidence and arguments during a trial. During this phase, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent the child's best interests independently of either party.

Factors Considered by The Court

The court takes multiple factors into consideration when determining custody arrangements. These factors include:

In some historical cases, such as In re Custody of Shields, courts have set precedents emphasizing that third-party custody is an extraordinary measure that should only be considered when necessary for the welfare of the child.

Finalizing Custody

If the court decides in favor of third-party custody, it will issue a custody order outlining all terms, including visitation rights for biological parents if appropriate. This order can be modified in the future if there's a significant change in circumstances.


Navigating third-party custody proceedings in Washington requires a comprehensive understanding of legal procedures and an unwavering commitment to advancing the child's welfare. Individuals considering this route should consult with an experienced family law attorney to guide them through this complex process.