Child Custody Terminology

Unless you are a lawyer, there are probably going to be some terms that come up during your divorce process or child custody dispute that you do not recognize. Knowing what these words mean can help make a stressful situation a little less confusing.

A Phrase You Need to Know

Parenting Plan

Perhaps the most important term you need to know about is the parenting plan. This plan outlines when you see your children, where they will go to school, how you will make decisions about their future, and how to resolve issues with their other parent. In the past — and still in many states — the concepts outlined in the parenting plan were the “custody and visitation agreement.”

Note: In parenting plans, Washington State law often refers to a “custody schedule” as a “residential schedule.”

Older Phrases Still in Use

The language of divorce and custody in Washington State law has changed, but you may still hear some of these terms when meeting with your attorney, reading paperwork or articles, or presenting your case to the judge.

Custodial and Noncustodial Parents

The court used to name one parent the “custodial parent,” while the other held the title of the “noncustodial parent.” This was true even if the parents shared custody of their children. The child lives with the custodial parent the majority of the time. Washington State now calls this parent called the “primary residential parent.”

The other parent — who generally received less time with the child and often pays child support — was the noncustodial parent. This parent is now known as the “nonprimary residential parent.” Today, this parent receives “parenting time” as described in the parenting plan, under Washington State law.

Legal Custody and Decision Making

The primary residential parent has legal custody. If it is a true 50/50 joint custody, both parents have legal custody.

The courts prefer to award joint decision making to both parents regardless of the custody determination as courts expect parents to work together to make good decisions for the child, which means that most parenting plans today have parents sharing legal custody no matter who has physical custody of the child the majority of the time. If the judge believes one parent cannot make good decisions about the child’s health, education or other matters, the courts can award the decision-making power to only one parent.

Physical Custody

When people talk about “custody,” they usually mean where the child lives. In the past, the courts deemed parents “custodial” and “noncustodial” based on who had primary physical custody of the child and who had visitation rights. Today, many parenting plans outline 50/50 parenting time for children. Washington State refers to this as “joint physical custody.”


In the past, the time a child spent with the “noncustodial parent” was known as “visitation.” Today, this is simply known as “parenting time” with the parent who typically sees the child less frequently, often as little as every other weekend. Chances are, however, that you will still hear this term used quite frequently.

Grandparent Visitation or “Third Party Custody”

When parents have issues affecting their parenting abilities, Washington does allow courts to award grandparents or other third parties custody of a child. This decision stems from what the judge believes is in the best interest of the child. However, Washington does not allow grandparent or other third party “visitation”.

Other Important Custody Terms


An affidavit is a written testimony, given under oath. Courts often use these to submit evidence or learn more information from a witness. These are commonly referred to as declarations.


Agreements are the most common way to end custody disputes. The involved parties work together to find a middle ground, and agree to a residential schedule.


An answer is the other party’s written and submitted response to your petition or motion.


A motion is the request one party makes to the court to ask for something from the other party during a dispute.


The judge’s official ruling on a motion in a divorce or custody case, such as the parenting plan approval or child support.

Temporary Order

Courts issue temporary orders during the divorce process to ensure children and former spouses have the resources they need. Temporary orders may include a parenting plan, child support, spousal maintenance (alimony), debt division, property division and attorney fees. These orders are only in effect until the judge issues the divorce decree.


This is often imperative for unmarried parents. If the father is to have a relationship with the child after the parents’ separation, he must establish paternity if he has not singed a paternity affidavit with the State and/or is not listed on the child’s birth certificate as the father.

Call Crouse Erickson today.

We know that child custody is likely the most important — and most contested — part of your divorce. We also know how confusing it can be to have these terms thrown at you with no explanation. We can explain any topics you are confused about and protect your rights during the process.

Call Crouse Erickson today at 509-624-1380 to learn more.

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