How Far Back Can Child Support Go in Washington State? 

January 8, 2023

Do you owe child support in Washington, but you haven’t received it? There are several reasons for requesting an order for retroactive or back child support, but you must know the rules in your state. In Washington State, there are specific circumstances in which the court will award back child support, and there is a statute of limitations for when back child support can be requested—even if the Department of Children Services (DCS) is involved in the case.

Who Is Responsible for Paying Child Support in Washington? 

When parents divorce, they create a parenting plan that defines who will pay child support and how much. If the parents can’t agree, the court will determine who will pay child support and how much. The non-custodial parent will be responsible for paying child support to the custodial parent.

Often, child support payments are paid through the state’s agency governing child support. The agency collects the payments and then forwards them to the appropriate party.

What Is Back Child Support? 

Back child support is unpaid, past due child support payments. These payments are legally known as arrearage. Hence, the parent was ordered to pay child support and has gotten behind and is said to be in arrears.

A person who has missed any child support payments owes back child support. The obligation to pay back child support doesn’t end when the child reaches the age of majority. The child support office in the state can automatically withhold income, garnish wages, seize tax refunds, or place a lien on the property to recover the arrearage.

The processing center or state disbursement unit (SDU) accepts the payments and sends them to the custodial parent. The state can collect the child support and not forward it to the custodial parent in some circumstances. Those include:

  • Fees: some states require fees to be paid from child support payments before the support goes to the custodial parent.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): Some states won’t allow the custodial parent to receive child support and public assistance from TANF simultaneously. In those states, the custodial parent must sign their child support payments over to the state. Other states allow the parent to receive full child support and TANF benefits.
  • Incarceration of the custodial parent: If the custodial parent is incarcerated, they don’t have physical custody of the child. The non-custodial parent, other family members, or the county or state of residence could receive temporary or long-term custody, changing where child support is sent.
  • Change in custody: States don’t automatically reroute child support when the child moves in with grandparents, other family members, or a foster family. The new guardian can petition the court for child support, including back payments retroactive to the date they took custody of the child. Foster care is a different matter; the state may hold child support payments to cover the costs of the care of the child by the state.

Paternity and Back Child Support

If parents aren’t married and paternity is an issue, the courts in Washington are more likely to award back child support. For this reason, the mother must file a paternity claim against the father to be considered.

When paternity is proven, the father will only be required to pay retroactive child support for up to five years. The amount is for childbirth and child-rearing expenses. However, if the father contributed to some of the costs before the paternity suit was filed, he will not owe the full amount of back child support. In that case, the father should be prepared to prove to the court the amount he has previously paid to the mother.

Lapse in Modification of a Past Order for Child Support

Another instance in which the Washington State court system considers awarding back child support is if there was a lapse in modifying the original child support order. Usually, this happens when an existing child support order includes a date for modification, and the custodial parent files for modification after that date has passed. When that happens, the non-custodial parent could be required to pay back child support from the original modification date of the child support order.

For example, the court-ordered child support agreement had a modification date of October 2015, and neither parent acted to modify the agreement until May 2016. When the court modified the agreement in 2016, retroactive child support was ordered. The non-custodial parent must then pay the difference in the support amount retroactively from the original modification date of October 2015 to the final modification date that occurred in 2016.

What You Should Do if You Are Owed Back Child Support

If you receive child support payments and the non-custodial parent has missed payments, you should start by contacting the state agency that handles child support. They can tell you what methods are available for child support enforcement.

You mustn’t attempt to settle the child support issue alone. Even if you are willing to negotiate with the other parent, you should involve the court. Personal agreements don’t eliminate the obligation the non-custodial parent has, and you will have difficulty collecting the amount owed to you if they don’t pay what they agreed to pay.

If the state doesn’t take sufficient action to collect the past due child support, you should contact your lawyer. The lawyer will be able to give you information regarding your steps for collecting the amount owed to you. They can also assist you with requesting a hearing regarding child support enforcement and your collection options.

Sometimes, a state will send you the ordered child support payments, and then they will sue the non-custodial parent for the back support without you presenting your child support case. When a state chooses this action, you can continue providing for your child or children without the issue of overdue payments from the non-custodial parent.

What If You Owe Back Child Support? 

If you are the person who owes back child support, you need to make every effort to pay the past due amount and keep up with any further child support payments. If you can afford to pay the full past-due amount, send it as if it were any other child support payment you’ve sent. However, you have options if you can’t pay the full amount. Discuss the possibilities offered by your state with your Washington State family law attorney.

Some states offer debt compromise plans for paying back child support. Those plan options include:

  • Check for errors in the amount you are listed as owing. Show proof of your payments and request that the court recalculates the past due child support amount.
  • The court might forgive portions of the debt if your child lived with you at any time during the time you are said to owe support.
  • If you create a satisfactory repayment plan, the court could waive the interest on back payments.
  • You are supposed to pay back child support immediately upon notification that you owe it. Still, it is possible to petition the court for a new payment schedule incorporating the past due amount.
  • You can make alternative arrangements with the custodial parent and get them approved by the court. Otherwise, your new arrangement won’t count toward your child support debt.
  • Some states charge a large amount of interest on back child support. If the state doesn’t waive your interest, you might consider applying for a lower-interest loan to pay off the back child support amount.

Regardless of how you plan to resolve your back child support issues, you need to continue making payments. Even if you can’t pay the full amount, paying something is better than stopping your payments entirely. Paying smaller amounts will not exonerate you from the consequences of missing payments or late payments, but it will show that you are making an effort to pay what you owe. Showing that you are willing to pay what you owe can help you when you are requesting alternative arrangements or contempt charges.

The Best Plan Is Avoiding Owing Back Child Support

There are some things you can do to avoid making late child support payments or missing them altogether. Those things include:

  • Know what the child support order says. Sometimes payments end when the child reaches the age of majority, and at other times, the order can specify a particular date for the payments to stop.
  • Know how you are supposed to make the payments so they are credited properly. The order will specify what method you will use to make support payments. Anything in addition to that, including gifts of money to the custodial parent, doesn’t count toward your child support that is owed.
  • Make sure the state has the correct records. For example, if you change jobs and your support is deducted from your paycheck, notify the child support agency of your new employer immediately to avoid missing a payment during the transition.
  • If you’ve lost your job, apply for unemployment and notify the state child support agency. The state can deduct child support monies from unemployment too.
  • If your income changes, petition for a child support modification.
  • Ensure you file your income tax returns. The state can intercept refunds to pay back child support payments.

Remember, child support is not dismissed through bankruptcy, so that isn’t an option for eliminating the debt.

Finding the Right Child Support Lawyer For You in Washington

In Washington state, child support arrearage can typically be assessed for five years. The best plan to avoid arrearage is to pay your support, and if you can’t, contact your lawyer or the state agency to request assistance. If you have any questions regarding back child support laws in Washington State, contact Aberdeen Law Firm.

Related Content: How is Child Support Calculated with Shared Custody in WA?


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