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Understanding the best interests of the child

Courts in Washington are required to make many decisions involving the future welfare of children whose parents are no longer, or never were, married. One of the bedrock concepts in Washington family law underlies all of these decisions: the best interests of the child. An understanding of this concept is essential for parents who no longer reside with the other parent of their children.

The Washington legislature has defined best interests of the child by passing a declaration of state policy. The policy recognizes that parents have the initial responsibility to make decisions about their child's education, health care and similar matters that affect the child's growth and maturity. The policy also recognizes that the relationship between each parent and the child should be encouraged and fostered unless the parent's relationship with the child is contrary to the child's best interests. In this respect, the legislative definition is somewhat circular.

A deeper insight into the meaning of the child's best interests is the last section of the legislative provision: ". . . the best interest of the child is ordinarily served when the existing pattern of interaction between a parent and child is altered only to the extent necessitated by the changed relationship of the parents or as required to protect the child from physical, mental, or emotional harm." Each case is different, and judges must apply these broad standards in making decisions on child custody and support.

A person who is contemplating seeking a divorce from the parent of their child may wish to seek advice on custody issues from an experienced family attorney. A knowledgeable lawyer may be able to help a parent understand how the best interests of the child will affect custody and other child-related issues in the divorce.