How does Washington law view joint vs. sole custody?

Understanding Custody Laws in Washington State

In the state of Washington, child custody laws are designed to ensure the well-being and best interests of the child. When parents decide to part ways, whether through divorce or separation, determining custody arrangements becomes a pivotal issue. Washington law recognizes two main types of custody: joint custody and sole custody. The distinction between these two can significantly impact family dynamics post-separation.

Joint Custody in Washington

Joint custody, referred to as 'joint decision-making' in Washington, involves both parents sharing the responsibility for making major decisions about their child's upbringing. These decisions include education, healthcare, and religious instruction. It is important to note that joint decision-making does not necessarily mean equal residential time with the child.

Washington courts favor joint custody arrangements when it is in the best interests of the child and when parents can demonstrate their ability to cooperate effectively. However, if there is a history of domestic violence or any evidence that joint decision-making could be detrimental to the child, the court may not grant joint custody.

Sole Custody in Washington

On the other hand, sole custody, or 'sole decision-making,' grants one parent the exclusive right to make significant decisions about their child's life. Sole custody is typically awarded in situations where one parent is deemed unfit due to factors such as substance abuse, mental health issues, or a history of abuse or neglect. In these cases, the court determines that it is in the best interest of the child for one parent to have primary authority.

It's essential to distinguish between sole legal custody and sole physical custody. Sole legal custody refers to decision-making power, while sole physical custody pertains to with whom the child primarily resides. One parent may have sole physical custody while still sharing legal custody with the other parent.

Historical References and Court Considerations

The evolution of custody laws in Washington reflects broader changes in family law across the United States. Historically, mothers were often granted custody under the 'tender years doctrine,' which presumed that young children were better off with their mother. However, this doctrine has since been replaced by gender-neutral considerations that focus on the best interests of the child.

When determining custody arrangements, Washington courts consider several factors, including:

An example of how these considerations play out can be seen in a landmark case where Washington courts awarded sole custody to one parent after determining that the other parent’s involvement would be harmful to the child’s emotional development.

Modification of Custody Orders

Custody orders in Washington are not set in stone. They can be modified if there is a substantial change in circumstances that affects the child's welfare. This might include a change in a parent’s employment, relocation, or a significant shift in parenting abilities.


In summary, Washington law approaches both joint and sole custody with a focus on what will best serve the needs and interests of the child involved. Whether through joint decision-making or sole authority, courts strive to create an environment that allows for stability, emotional support, and healthy development for children navigating their parents’ separation.