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Who Has Custody of a Child When There is No Court Order?

sad little girl not knowing what to expect from the child custody

Going through a divorce or separation is never easy—particularly for parents who share young children. You and your co-parent will have to come to a custody arrangement that works for your family. This raises an important question: How does child custody work without a court order? The answer depends on several factors. Though parents generally have equal rights. In this article, our Spokane child custody lawyers explain the most important things to know about custody in Washington when there is no court order in place. 

Custody for Separated Parents: What to Know 

How exactly child custody works for separated parents who do not have a court order depends on the specific circumstances of the cases. Here are the key things to know: 

  • Separation Divorce: A married man automatically has paternity rights if his wife gives birth. If a married couple later gets divorced, both parents will have equal custody rights unless there is a court order saying otherwise, or there is an agreement saying otherwise. This means that custody rights will generally be equal as the divorce is still pending. Notably, Washington courts require divorcing couples to work out a custody arrangement before the divorce is finalized. 
  • Separation Without Marriage (Paternity Established): When unmarried parents separate, there may still be equal custody rights. If the father has established paternity, he will have equal parental rights in Washington unless there is a custody order stating otherwise or a separation agreement stating otherwise.  
  • Separation Without Marriage (Paternity Non-Established): Without paternity, a man has no parental rights in Washington. If an unmarried couple separates but legal paternity has never been established, then custody will default to the child’s mother. Action must be taken to establish lawful paternity before custody or visitation rights can be exercised. 

Ultimately, every child custody matter in Washington is assessed on a case-by-case basis. If you have any specific questions about how custody works in your case, an attorney can help. 

Custody Standard in Washington: Best Interests of the Child

Washington uses the best interests of the child standard for custody cases. Under Washington law (RCW 26.09.002), courts will focus on doing what is best for the child’s health, safety, social development, and overall well-being when it allocates the parental responsibilities of each party. In other words, the preferences of the parents are secondary in a custody dispute. If you are locked in a difficult custody battle, it is imperative that you have an experienced Spokane family lawyer on your side. 

Contact Our Spokane, WA Child Custody Attorneys for Guidance and Support 

At Hodgson Law Office, our Spokane child custody lawyers are solutions-focused advocates for parents. If you have any questions about custody when there is no court order in place, we can help. For a confidential initial consultation, please do not hesitate to contact us today. From our Spokane office, we provide custody and visitation representation throughout all of Eastern Washington. 


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Mark D. Hodgson

Mark D. Hodgson

Mark D. Hodgson and his legal team at Hodgson Law Office provide exceptional, personalized representation in family law and divorce cases. With a commitment to trust, integrity, and vigorous advocacy, Hodgson Law Office offers reliable and compassionate legal assistance for all your family law issues.

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