When divorce happens, there are many difficult and potentially contentious decisions you and your spouse will have to make. Financial decisions and parenting decisions are among the most emotional of those decisions. When the issue of child support is addressed, it can often be most stressful because it involves both finances and children.
The state of Washington has guidelines in place that govern how child support is to be calculated. The court also is given the discretion to decide what, in its opinion, is the fairest and most equitable arrangement. When making this decision and ordering support, the focus of the court is not as much on the convenience of the parents, but the well-being of the children.
When Will the Court Order Child Support in WA?
Under Washington law, both parents share the financial obligations required to raise their kids. When a marriage is dissolved that involves children, the court is obligated under the law to order one or both parents to pay support of the child. Even if the parents reach a financial agreement outside the court, neither can opt-out of court-ordered child support.
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What Exactly Does a Child’s Support Order Do in Washington?
An order of child’s support issued by the court will specify which parent is to pay support. It will also specify who will pay expenses for the children including daycare, transportation, and health care. It will assign a parent to handle college expense arrangements and will make clear how long and how much support is to be paid.
How Does a Court Determine Support Amounts in Washington?
Any time a determination is being made about child’s support in any court or administrative proceeding in the state of Washington, the Washington State Child Support Schedule (WSCSS) must be used.
Like a tax table, the document considers each parent’s income, the number of children involved, and the relevant expenses such as childcare. The basic support is calculated based on the combined family income after taxes and the number of children involved. The court has the latitude to adjust the amount as needed based on special circumstances that may exist.
Based on the net income amounts, and using the state schedule, the court determines the amount of total child’s support that is to be paid per child by both parents. Then, based typically on the parent’s percentage of total monthly income, the determination is made as to who should make the payments to whom.
For clarity, consider an example in which Parent A and Parent B have one child and have a combined monthly net income of $1,000. According to the WSCSS, they must provide $220 per month for child support in total. If Parent A contributes 70% of the combined income ($700 per month) and Parent B contributes 30% ($300 per month), then Parent A will pay 70% of the total child support, or $154 per month. Parent B will be responsible for 30% of the total child support, or $66 per month.
If the combined total income between the parents is less than $1,000, the court will examine the resources available to each household and the living expenses of each household to determine a fair payment. The minimum child support allowed by law is $50 per month per child. The maximum child support allowed by law is 45% unless there is a reason to increase it such as significant wealth.
Parents may agree to pay more than the support guideline amounts based on the Washington Child Support Schedule, but they cannot pay less unless the amounts are adjusted and ordered by the court.
Who Pays Child Support?
In typical circumstances, the noncustodial parent (the parent who has the kids for less than 50% of the time) pays support to the custodial parent. When child support is being calculated by the court, the custodial parent is expected to pay child support too. Washington child support law assumes the custodial parent is spending money directly on the child as a matter of course.
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Calculating Parent Income for Child’s Support in Washington
When calculating the amount of child support a parent will have to pay, the court will look at the gross and net income of both parents. Gross income includes money received from all sources. This includes salary, wages, bonuses, commissions, pensions severance, or military pay. It also includes money from dividends, interest, royalties, or a trust. If a parent is unemployed and receives social security or workers’ comp payments, or unemployment or disability benefits, they still may be responsible to pay child support.
Using this information, the court then figures the net income of each parent. This amount equals the gross income minus state and federal income taxes, FICA taxes, and any court-ordered support (spousal support or child support) already being paid.
The Washington State Child Support Schedule allows for certain other deductions to be made when figuring a parent’s gross income even though all income must be disclosed. Deductions would include income from a new spouse or of other adults in the household. It also could exclude gifts and prizes, temporary need-based assistance, food stamps, and certain overtime income derived from a second job.
The schedule also allows for certain expenses to be deducted from the gross monthly income when determining the net income of a parent. These include certain retirement contributions, self-employment taxes, and certain business expenses provided justification can be made.
Is There a Difference in Child’s Support Calculation for Shared Custody?
On occasions, usually through mutual agreement, parents have a 50/50 parenting plan. In other words, each parent has the children 50% of the time. It might be an assumption that this would imply that neither would pay child support to the other. That is not generally the case.
Washington state child support law operates under the assumption that child support will be paid to the parent who has the children most of the time. There isn’t a lot of guidance for handling scenarios where equal parenting is planned. The law provides deviations from the standard calculation under certain circumstances. One of those circumstances would be if the child spends a significant amount of time with the parent who is ordered to make the child support payments.
The courts have shown reluctance to grant such a deviation when the children spend most of the time with either parent even in close percentages like a 40/60 split.
Another exception to granting any deviation would be where the deviation would leave one parent without sufficient resources to meet the children’s basic needs. If one household is low income, the deviation is not likely to be granted.
In the event the court does find sufficient merit to grant a deviation because of equal parenting, there are two ways in which this situation could be addressed.
One way would be to consider the actual expenses of each household and determine the amount of support based on that metric. For example, if one parent buys most of the clothes, pays medical bills, etc., support might be adjusted to account for that in addition to discrepancies in income.
Another way to adjust for equal parenting would be to simply base the child support percentage based on the income differences of the parents. So that, if Parent A makes $2,000 per month and Parent B makes $4,000, Parent B would be responsible for 2/3 of the total child support because they make 2/3 of the combined income between the two parents.
Challenging Washington Child Support Awards
There are times when the support amount based on the WSCSS is unfair to a parent or a child. Before the order is settled by the court, a parent could ask that the amount of support be adjusted. When this happens, the court reviews a lengthy set of factors that could either increase or decrease the amount of child support. These factors may include:
- Income made by a new spouse or domestic partner
- Child support from other relationships
- Gifts, prizes, or other wealth
- Nonrecurring income like a bonus or unusual overtime pay
- Differences in cost of living between parents
- Special needs of a disabled child
Modifying Child Court Ordered Child Support in Washington
When an order is issued by the court, it remains in effect until a child turns 18. There are cases when the order extends beyond a child’s 18th birthday if special circumstances apply, or the child has special needs.
Substantial change must be demonstrated in the ability to pay such as a job loss or a medical emergency to justify a change in support in the first year of the order. But even in these cases, unemployment, if voluntary, will not likely justify a change in the support order. There must be a good reason why the paying parent is not working or is working less.
If the support order has been in place for longer than a year, a substantial change in circumstances won’t necessary. The court can increase or decrease the amount of the support order if the terms of that order have created severe economic hardship on either parent or the child.
An Experienced Washington Attorney Can Be Invaluable
When you and your spouse are working through the child support issues, enlisting the help of an experienced family attorney from The Aberdeen Law Firm can help you navigate the many intricacies of the law. Having the aid of a compassionate attorney can ease some of the stress of an already difficult time. We understand your financial concerns and are committed to helping you develop a satisfactory plan to present to the court that meets the needs of everyone involved. Contact us today for a no-obligation consultation to learn how we can help you.