As of January 1st, 2021, Washington State no longer recognizes 3rd party custody actions. This change is of particular concern to grandparents, or any non-parent, actively seeking custody of children whose parents cannot care for them. This change likely raises important questions, such as:

What changed about the process?

Technically, this change replaces 3rd party custody with minor guardianship and moves the process from Washington’s “Domestic Relations” code to the “Probate and Trust” laws. That alone is significant. Additionally, there are many cosmetic changes to wording in the law, such as changing the title of “custodian” to “guardian.” Custodians are now considered those in charge of a person’s assets as part of a conservatorship.

What happens to third-party custody matters that were already in process before this change?

According to the Superior Court of Pierce County, if the case was not concluded before January 1st of 2021, the petition will be dismissed. You may still re-file for a minor guardianship. Additionally, if you had a temporary custody order at that time, it is no longer valid.

Do the duties and powers of guardians change now?

Under the new law, the fundamental powers remain the same with simplified wording. Guardians now have “the powers a parent otherwise would have regarding the minor’s support, care, education, health, safety, and welfare.”

Officially, the law classifies guardians as “fiduciaries” on the child’s behalf. This change implies that guardians must make decisions in their best interest or face civil liability.

What are the pros and cons in terms of legal tactics?

Tactics in any family law matter are intensely case-specific. It takes more than knowledge of legal codes to understand and implement a successful legal strategy. That reality is why it is wise to consult an experienced family law attorney. They can fully explain how the various updates to the law make a difference to your case and provide you with a path forward.

What hasn’t changed at any point in this legislative update is the emphasis on “the best interests of the child.” If having you as a guardian is in your grandchild’s best interest, it makes sense to pursue that as aggressively as possible.