How Child Custody is Determined in a Divorce

The court has several goals in deciding child custody in a divorce case. These goals can include, but are not limited to:

  • Providing for the child’s physical care
  • Maintaining emotional stability for the child
  • Providing for the changing needs of the child as he or she grows and matures
  • Setting forth the responsibility of each parent with respect to the child
  • Minimizing the child’s exposure to harmful parental conflict

Overall, the court will make these decisions based on what it thinks are in the child’s best interests.

The Primary Custodial Parent

In most cases, the parents will share custody in some fashion, but the court will name one parent as the primary custodial parent. The primary custodial parent is the person who the child lives with a majority of the time.

The court weighs several different factors when choosing the primary custodial parent, including the previous roles that each parent played in the child’s life. Contrary to popular belief, this does not automatically mean that the mother will be named the primary parent.

In making the decision, the court will weigh the following factors:

  • Each parent’s work schedule: In most cases, the court prefers that a child is not left in daycare or with a babysitter if the other parent’s work schedule allows him or her to provide care for the child in the other parent’s absence.
  • The lifestyle of each parent and his or her ability to provide the basic necessities of life, including food, shelter and clothing.
  • The relationship that the child has with each parent, siblings and other family members.
  • The child’s age and developmental needs.
  • The child’s emotional needs.

The court will carefully consider each of these factors when determining who the primary parent should be, but the greatest weight is usually given to the relationship that the child has with each parent.

Allocating Parenting Time

Child custody determinations can vary widely: some parents may only have supervised visits; in other cases, the child may transfer frequently between households. Where you fall on that spectrum will be based on the above factors and what is in the best interest of the child.

In most cases, each parent should be able to have frequent residential time with the child. However, some factors may affect one parent’s time with the child and either limit or restrict it completely. These limiting factors can include the criminal history of the parties or other adults living in the household, the existence of domestic violence, or the abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Obtaining Outside Opinions

In cases where the court has difficulty determining child custody, they may seek the assistance of outside professionals. If your child sees a counselor, the court may consider the counseling records or recommendations of the counselor to determine what the parenting arrangement should be. In other instances, the court may appoint a Guardian ad Litem or Parenting Investigator to be the eyes and ears of the court and make a recommendation about placement.

The Best Interest of the Children

The determination of child custody in a divorce case will differ for each family because it is fact-specific. You should remember though, that any child custody determination is going to be based, first and foremost, on what is in the best interest of the children.


Please be advised that family law cases can be very complex and are different for everyone, based on unique circumstances. The information provided here should not be construed as legal advice in your case.

McKinley Irvin proudly serves Washington State and Oregon with offices in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Puyallup, Vancouver and Portland. Contact our family law offices to set up an appointment with a McKinley Irvin family attorney.

Categories: Child Custody
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