Third Party Custody

Actions for non-parental custody.

Stepparent and grandparent custody actions in Washington State.

Actions are called non-parental custody under Washington law.  If you have become the primary caregiver for a child or children, we don’t have to tell you how daunting the job can be.   Third party custody is a type of legal action where you, in essence, become the parent of a minor child (or children).  Usually, the person seeking custody has some sort of preexisting biological relationship, like a grandparent.

Similar to an adoption, this legal action is one of the most difficult legal paths you can take.  The main difference between adoption and third party custody is that the link between the original biological parents and the child still exist.  The rewards of successfully obtaining third party custody orders are endless.  If can prove that you should be allowed to legally replace the natural parent(s), it is possible to file for third party custody under Washington State law.

About third party custody.

Fundamentally, in order to prevail in a non-parental custody case, you must be able to show one of two criteria:

1). Unfit parent.

It is not enough to merely assert that the natural parents are doing a poor job. Even if third party custody would be in the best interests of the child because you can provide a “better home,” Washington courts are reluctant to supersede the rights of parents.

Adequate cause requires that the mother and/or father meet the legal definition of “unfit parents”:

  • Abandonment or severe neglect
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of the child
  • Drug addiction; or
  • Imprisonment / criminal activity


2). Detrimental environment.

A more difficult, but still plausible, approach is to assert that placing the child with the parent will place the child in such a detrimental environment that it be harmful to the child.  Usually, this argument is similar to an argument that a parent is unfit except that the parent’s faults do not rise to the level of being called unfit.  Under this approach, the child usually will be residing with the third party parent before an action is filed. Virtually anyone acting in a parental role (providing shelter, providing economically for the child, and making decisions on behalf of the child on a day-to-day basis.) can file a third party custody case.

Higher scrutiny than conventional custody cases.

Third party custody cases have a higher level of scrutiny from the court.  Before your case can proceed, a court must find that you met “adequate cause”.  Adequate case is a legal finding that you have a sufficient basis to proceed with your case.  In addition to meeting adequate cause, third party custody petitioners must undergo a Washington State Patrol (WSP) criminal background check, a Child Protective Services (CPS) check, and other background checks as the court deems appropriate.

De facto parenting.

De Facto Parenting common law is similar to, but not necessarily the same as a third party custody case.  A de facto parenting case can only be brought if thee is one parent.  You may not bring a de facto parenting case if the child already has two parents.  A de facto parent can be a stepparent, a grandparent, or other relative, even a godparent or family friend not related to the child.

Compassionate counsel, strong litigation.

Our attorneys also understand that these are emotionally difficult proceedings, pitting family against family. Our focus is on ensuring the court understands the needs of the child, not punishment of the unfit parent. A petition is often challenged by the parents at the first Non Parental Custody hearing.

Perhaps Grandma and Grandpa have been caring for the child, and now the parent(s) want the child back after getting treatment for addiction.  We can present a compelling argument why the third party custody should be granted over the parents’ objection.

As in any custody matter, third party custody is not permanent. A court can rescind or modify non-parental custody at a later date. Only the state can move to terminate parental rights, and natural parents who are very determined to get their kids back often prevail. Until that day — if it ever comes — the child or children need the protection, security, and love they had not been getting.

The Seattle Family Law Group of in Washington, represents grandparents and stepparents in third party custody cases.  We are experienced family law attorneys practicing in King County, Snohomish County, and Pierce County. Contact our office at (206) 633-2015 to arrange a consultation.