Visitation Rights

Often, a child will lose contact with relatives and family members they have developed strong bonds with after a divorce or death of a parent.

For non-parent family members that want to protect their relationship with a child and ensure that they get to continue contact with the child, there are legal options. Petitioning for visitation rights is now an option again in the state of Washington and if you are in a visitation dispute you will want to find the right family law attorney.

Seattle Child Visitation Attorneys in Washington

The attorneys at Law Offices of Shana E. Thompson are empathetic advocates for their clients. We know that divorces and family law issues can be incredibly difficult for all parties involved. Spouses, children, and relatives are all facing a change in circumstances and having an attorney you can trust, that is fighting for your interests is crucial.

Law Offices of Shana E. Thompson represent clients throughout King County including the cities of Seattle and Kent. We also represent clients throughout the bordering counties of Snohomish County to the north and Pierce County to the south.

We are here to help and want to make this process as smooth as we possibly can. If you are in need of help in a visitation rights issue, contact us today at (206) 712-2756 and schedule a consultation to come in and speak with us.

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Visitation Rights Washington Statute

The State of Washington has long recognized child visitation rights for certain non-parent relatives after the dissolution of a marriage. That right was previously codified in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) but was subsequently struck down by both the Washington Supreme Court and The Supreme Court of the United States.

This left relatives in Washington who were being stopped from seeing their grandchildren, siblings, cousins, and nephews or nieces without any legal recourse. A new revised law, RCW 26.11.020, has been passed in the state that again gives relatives or those with substantial relationships to the child the option to petition for visitation rights.

There are certain criteria under RCW 26.11 that must be met for a person, who is not a parent of the child, to be granted visitation rights in Washington.

  • The person petitioning (petitioner) must have an ongoing and substantial relationship with the child;
  • The petitioner must also be a relative of the child or a parent of the child.
    • Relative means any blood relative, including half-blood, grandparents, great grandparents, first cousins, second cousins, nephews or nieces, stepparents, stepsiblings, adoptive parents, and adoptive parents’ children and families;
    • Relative does not include any person whose parental rights have been terminated, relinquished, or determined not to exist with the child.
  • Finally, the petitioner must show that the child is likely to suffer harm or there is a substantial risk of harm to the child if visitation with the petitioning party is denied.
  • RCW 26.11.020 presumes that a person has already established an “ongoing and substantial relationship with a child” if:
    • the child and petitioner have had a relationship “formed and sustained through interaction, companionship, and mutuality of interest and affection, without expectation of financial compensation”
    • that this relationship has proceeded with “substantial continuity” for at least two years, unless the child is under the age of two
    • if a child is less than two, “substantial continuity” is defined as at least half of the child’s life, with the expectation and desire of an ongoing relationship
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Washington Visitation Petition and Hearing

A petitioner for visitation rights may only ask for visitation once. Thus, if the petition fails, they are precluded from ever asking for visitation again.  Thus, any petitioner must submit, along with the petition, an affidavit that alleges that the relationship falls into one of the relationship categories in the section above and that the child is likely to suffer harm or there is a substantial risk of harm if visitation is denied. The court will hold a hearing if, from the petition and affidavit, it finds that it is more likely than not that visitation will be granted.

Once the Court has determined that the petition and affidavits support a finding that visitation will be granted, the court shall hold a hearing.  The keys during a visitation hearing is whether the child is likely to suffer harm or if there will be a substantial risk of harm if visitation is not granted and whether it is in the best interest of the child to have visitation with the petitioner.

The parent with custody, as they have already  been deemed a fit parent by court order, is given the benefit of a presumption that their decision to deny visitation is in the best interest of the child and does not create a risk of harm. If the petitioner wants to be granted visitation rights, he or she will have to overcome this presumption by clear and convincing evidence.

The court will look to several factors to determine risk of harm and what the best interest of the child is. The following is a list of factors the court must consider.

  • Love, affection, strength, and benefit to the child of the current relationship between child and petitioner;
  • Length and quality of the prior relationship with child. This includes the emotional ties and role the petitioner had in the child’s life;
  • Relationship between the petitioner and the party fighting the petition (respondent);
  • Love, affection, and strength of current relationship between child and respondent;
  • The nature and reason for the respondent objecting to visitation with the petitioner;
  • Effect on relationship between child and respondent if petition granted.
  • Residential time-sharing arrangements between parties having residential time with the child;
  • Good faith of the petitioner and respondent;
  • Any history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect by petitioner or person residing with petitioner;
  • The child’s preference;
  • Any other factor’s relevant to a child’s best interest.
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Seattle Visitation Law Problems

In the past, if a parent that had retained custodial rights over a child prevented a relative from seeing the child, the relative could petition for visitation rights under RCW 26.10.160(3). That statute was much simpler and allowed any person to petition with only a showing that visitation was in the best interest of the child.

In the case of Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), The Washington Supreme Court and The Supreme Court of the United States both found that RCW 26.10.160(3) was unconstitutional because it infringed upon the parent’s fundamental right to raise their children. This fundamental right is protected by The Fourteenth Amendment which requires “heightened protection against government interference” for certain fundamental rights including the right of a parent to make decisions about the care, custody, and control of their children. Essentially, both courts took issue with the fact that a judge could decide what was in the best interest of a child and impose a ruling without consideration of what the parent thought was in the best interest of the child.

Since RCW 26.10.160(3) was struck down by The Supreme Court, the state of Washington created a new law, RCW 26.11.020. This new law is what has been discussed above and addresses the concerns of The Supreme Court by adding several layers of factors a court must consider and crucially the requirement that there must be a showing that a child will suffer harm or a substantial risk of harm if visitation is not granted.

This does not mean that the new law is completely safe from The Supreme Court deciding to strike it down. The law, because it is new as of 2018 and because it was in response to a previous law that was struck down, is unsettled and uncertain. It is still possible that any appeals court could find the law unconstitutional and those petitioning for visitation rights could be left without recourse once again.

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Grandparents Rights in Washington State

Unfortunately, there are currently no federal or state guidelines pertaining to grandparent’s right to visitation. The biological parents of the child will usually have full control and can object to visitation if they wish to do so. If this happens, the grandparents are left in a tight spot as they can’t petition for visitation rights unless the parents are divorced, separated, in the process of divorce, or something else disrupted the family unit. A court will consider bestowing visitation rights if it’s within the child’s best interests.

The following are some factors the judge may use to determine a child’s best interests:

  • Grandparent’s relationship to each of the child’s parents
  • What effect the visitation may have on the parent-child relationship
  • The child’s relationship with the grandparent and if they have a strong bond
  • The reasoning and nature of the parent’s objection to visitation
  • The custody agreement for both parents
  • Any criminal record or history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse/neglect by the grandparent or grandparents
  • Any other factors the court may regard as relevant
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At What Age Can a Child Refuse to See a Parent in Washington State?

The purpose of a parenting plan is to benefit the child and their best interests. They are set in place until the minor child is 18 years old, they’ve emancipated themselves, or the order was modified in Washington courts. Parents must follow these plans and failure to do so can result in a contempt order. However, there are many children who are in a “resists refuse” state and do not wish to see the other parent.

There is no set age at which a child can refuse visitation in the state of Washington. Many parents are in the position of having an independent child who simply refuses to visit the other spouse. Many parents are encouraging their children to see the other parent, but the child refuses to do so. If a parent is preventing visits, the judge can enforce the visitation order or even hold the parent in contempt. However, if there’s no evidence of coercion/withholding by the other parent, then there’s only so much the court can do.

How the court will determine when a child refusing visitation is acceptable is based on that family’s particular circumstances. For instance, if the child is a toddler and they’re crying and screaming to avoid visiting the other parent, the court would expect that parent to transport the toddler despite the tantrum, though depending on the facts, this may warrant further investigation. Now, if the child was a combative teenager who refuses to attend visits with the other parent, then the judge will likely not penalize the other parent so long as there is evidence that the parent has encouraged the child to see the other parent. If the court becomes involved, reunification therapy may be ordered or the court may examine the cause of why the child refuses visits. This can also turn against the parent with whom the child is not refusing, as the court could find that parent has engaged in abusive use of conflict. These are perilous situations for parents on either side of the issue and typically require experienced help to navigate.

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Seattle Visitation Rights Resources

Nonparental Child Visitation Statute – This link will take you to all sections of the new visitation law. The sections include everything discussed above but also the rules on attorney’s fees and modification.

Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000) – The Troxel decision discussed above involved a mother preventing the parents of the deceased father of her children from visiting. The Supreme Court’s decision is lengthy but the link provided will take you to a summary of the case.

Free Uncontested Divorce Forms in Washington – Visit the website of the Washington Courts to find forms for an uncontested divorce or dissolution including the FL All Family 119 Agreement to Join Petition (Joinder). Learn more about ending the marriage. Additionally, ind general information instruction for converting the legal separation into dissolution.

Washington Courts –  Visit the Washington Courts to download certain divorce forms including petitions for divorce, summons confidential information and more. The Washington Courts also offers several resources on its webpage regarding court news, jury duty and civic learning.

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King County Visitation Rights Attorney, WA

The attorneys at Law Offices of Shana E. Thompson are well experienced in all family law and custody matters. We know how to navigate the law and the courts to best serve the interest of our clients.

We represent clients in family law cases throughout all of King County including Kent and Seattle. Our family law attorneys also represent clients in Snohomish County and Pierce County to the south.

If you are in need of a family law attorney or have a visitation rights issue you need assistance with, call us today at (206) 712-2756. Make an appointment to discuss your case with us and we can help you make your next step.

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