In Washington, child support is governed by the Washington Child Support Schedule. It is, in essence, a series of statutes that create a formula but also leave the court discretion to modify the final Child Support Order.
This formula takes into account each parent’s resources and the needs of the child(ren) in determining the non-residential parent’s monthly child support obligation. Each must disclose pay stubs, tax returns and other documents revealing gross income and certain deductions from income. Once the incomes of the parents and the deductions to which they are entitled have been established, the law references a standard table which considers family size, the age(s) of the child(ren) and the combined net incomes of the parents. Thereafter, various adjustments are applied before arriving at the “support transfer payment,” which is the term of art used for child support in this state.
How it Works
Income is broadly defined in Washington to include all sources. On the other hand, the court allows each parent to deduct various expenses from income – such as taxes, mandatory deductions from earnings, and retirement plan contributions up to a specified threshold. Then the combined net monthly incomes of the parents are plugged into the above-referenced table, which in turn spits out the “basic child support obligation, as well as each parent’s share of that sum (based on his/her percentage of their combined net incomes).
Next, each child’s monthly expenses for health insurance, unreimbursed health care and long-distance travel (incurred to facilitate the non-residential parent’s exercise of parenting time) are factored in. (Expenses such as private school tuition, extracurricular activities and the like may be considered; however, in most cases, such expenses will only be included if the parents have agreed to share them.) Each parent is allocated a share of responsibility for said court-sanctioned expenses, once again based on his/her percentage of combined net income, and that share of expense is added to each parent’s share of basic child support, resulting in his/her “gross child support obligation.”
Finally, the sum that the non-residential parent pays each month for the child(ren)’s above-referenced monthly expenses is deducted from his or her gross child support obligation, resulting in the “presumptive transfer payment – which is the presumptive amount the non-custodial parent will pay for child support. (Since only the non-residential parent pays child support, the residential parent’s share of total support as computed by the Child Support Schedule need not be considered.) Ultimately, the court has discretion to modify the presumptive transfer payment based on a number of factors before entering the support transfer payment (otherwise known as the Child Support Order).
If this seems confusing, take a few minutes to get acquainted with a Washington State Child Support Calculator. (This support calculator was developed by the Washington Department of Social & Health Services. DSHS provides a number of child support related services. You can find a link to the Washington DSHS Division of Child Support Enforcement on the Divorce Resources page of this website.)
Daycare and Childcare Expenses
Unless extraordinary circumstances are present, each parent will be required to pay a pro rata share of work-related daycare and childcare expenses for each child. (That pro rata share is once again based on each parent’s percentage of their combined net income).
Deviation from the Washington Child Support Schedule
The court can, under some circumstances, deviate from the child support computation which results from application of the Child Support Schedule – for reasons such as additional adults in the household; possession of wealth (not reflected in that parent’s income); extraordinary debt not voluntarily incurred; a significant disparity in living costs of the parents due to conditions beyond their control; special medical, educational or psychological needs of the child(ren); whether the parents have other children to support; and the extent to which the non-residential parent incurs expenses for the child(ren) that would otherwise be bourn by the residential parent (as a result of such things as, for example, significant time with the child(ren).
If the court is to deviate, it must make explicit findings as to why this is in the child(ren)’s best interest and justified by the circumstances of the parents. The mere fact that the parents have an agreement to deviate is not, in itself, adequate cause. Child support is intended for the benefit of the child(ren) – to pay for expenses such as food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care. Even though the residential parent receives these funds, there’s a presumption they will be used in furtherance of the child(ren)’s interests. Thus, child support is considered the child(ren)’s property, which a parent cannot waive absent appropriate court findings.
Even when there is a basis to deviate, the court cannot leave the primary residential parent with insufficient funds to support the child(ren). What constitutes sufficient funds will vary from case to case, based on any number of factors (such as, for instance, the total income of the parents, the standard of living established during the marriage, special needs the children may have, etc.)
Though child support is based on the combined income of both parents, the income of a new spouse is not considered unless the parent with the new spouse is requesting the court deviate support downward, in which event the court can take the new spouse’s income into consideration in determining whether deviation is appropriate and, if so, the amount by which to deviate.
Limitations on Child Support
According to the Support Schedule, a parent cannot be ordered to pay more than 25% of his or her net income toward current child support. (If the order is for current child support plus arrearages, a parent cannot be required to pay more than 50% of his/her net income.) In addition, a parent may not be ordered to pay a sum that would leave him or her below the Washington state poverty line. However, the Schedule also states that child support must be entered in an amount no less than $50 per child per month. Since these rules have the potential to contradict each other, on those occasions when ordering the sum of $50 per child per month would run afoul of one of the above-referenced limitations on child support, the court will resolve the conflict as it deems appropriate.
Changing a Child Support Order
A Child Support Order may be modified at any time based on a showing of a substantial change in circumstances (such as, for instance, involuntarily termination of employment or severe disability resulting in significant loss of income). The rule of thumb is that whatever occurred must have been both significant and beyond the control of the requesting parent. The party requesting the modification will have to prove to the court’s satisfaction that the substantial change threshold has been met. Since the court has an interest in ensuring the stability of child support orders, this standard can be difficult to meet.
Absent a substantial change in circumstances, the court may nonetheless modify child support at least one year after the current support order was entered if it finds:
- the order works a severe economic hardship on either parent or the child;
- the child is no longer in the age category on which the current Child Support Order was based; or
- the child is still in high school and there is a need to extend support beyond his/her eighteenth birthday to complete high school.
Child support may be adjusted two or more years after the current support order was entered based on nothing more than changes in the parents’ incomes. Adjustments can occur more frequently if a court order specifies a lesser period between re-computation. Adjustment is a simpler procedure than modification.
Child Support & Parenting Time
Child support is a separate issue from parenting time. A parent must pay his/her child support even if he or she is not seeing the child(ren). Likewise, a parent cannot refuse to let the other parent see the child(ren) because support is not being paid. A parent who withholds parenting time risks being sanctioned, as does a parent who fails to pay child support.
Consulting An Attorney
An attorney can help determine the amount of child support the court is likely to award and, when support has already been established, whether it’s appropriate to seek a modification, adjustment or termination.
If you believe extreme circumstances exist that justify or necessitate withholding parenting time to protect your children, such as neglect or child abuse, it is particularly important to consult a domestic relations attorney. An attorney can advise whether the court is likely to agree that parenting time should be withheld or if you are likely to risk sanction for unreasonably denying access. If parenting time is withheld, the matter should be presented to the court in a timely manner so that the Parenting Plan can be reviewed and, if appropriate, revised. If you cannot consult an attorney, it’s essential you file the appropriate pleadings with the court as quickly as possible. If reckless or criminal conduct is involved, it may also be appropriate to contact Child Protective Services (CPS) and/or law enforcement.
As is true in all domestic relations cases, I recommend you consult an attorney before taking any action that will impact your rights and obligations or those of your children. If you choose not to retain counsel, the consultation becomes even more important because you will have to understand the legal issues presented and develop a sound, well considered strategy for addressing those issues.