How Having Children Will Affect Your Divorce Proceeding
Washington Parenting and Child Support Laws
If you are a parent facing divorce, it is important that you are prepared
to address parenting and child support issues during your case. These
issues can be especially complicated and emotional. It is important that
you speak with a Washington divorce attorney as soon as you know that
divorce may be in your future. Your Washington attorney can help you plan
a case strategy that is best for you and your kids.
Once your divorce proceedings have been initiated, think about how your
actions may impact your children. Try to maintain their routines, and
support their emotional wellbeing. Although there may be a temptation
to do so, never disparage your spouse in your children's presence.
Also avoid discussing the details of the divorce, or providing them with
reasons for the divorce. Remind them that they did not cause the divorce,
and that the divorce will not change how much both parents love them.
If both parents will continue to be a consistent figure in their lives,
tell them that.
Parent Education Classes
Divorcing parents of minor children will be required by Washington courts
to participate in a mandatory parenting class prior to their divorce being
finalized. Children are not to attend the class. You need not take the
course with the children's other parent. Classes are in group lecture
format. They inform parents about the effect of family restructuring on
children in divorce and custody cases. There is a fee for the classes.
The classes focus on:
- Children's developmental stages;
- The emotional effect of a divorce or separation on children;
- The effect on children of parental conduct;
- Strategies for better co-parenting during and after a divorce or separation;
- Custody, parenting time, and shared parenting plans; and
- Mediation and conflict resolution between parents.
Washington Child Custody Laws
What is custody?
Washington child custody law involves three different aspects, each of
which will need to be resolved during the dissolution process:
- The RESIDENTIAL SCHEDULE determines how much time the children spend with
- DECISION-MAKING AUTHORITY determines who makes major decisions for the children.
- The PARENTING PLAN provides terms and conditions govern the particulars
about how residential time may be exercised with each parent, and how
the parents are to behave with the children and each other.
Washington State does not use the term "custody." Instead, Washington
courts use the term "residential schedule" to describe custody
and visitation. The parent with whom the children reside the majority
of the time is called the "primary residential parent." The
other parent, with whom the child does not reside the majority of the
time, is the "non-residential" parent. (This guide uses the
term "custody" to mean "primary residential parent.")
Washington State handles children's residential schedules separately
from decision-making authority. While emergency and day-to-day decisions
may be made by whomever the child is residing with, other significant
decisions should be decided as set forth in the parenting plan's decision-making
section. Significant decisions may include, but are not limited to, decisions
regarding schooling, medical care, religion, when the child may have a
cell phone, whether the child can get a tattoo, and more. The court will
order that either the primary residential parent, the non-primary residential
parent, or both parents shall have the right to make decisions on these
issues. The family law court will consider the following factors in granting
- Whether both parents agree to mutual decision making;
- Whether there is a history of physical or sexual child or spousal abuse,
neglect, or abandonment;
- Whether both parents have demonstrated a desire and an ability to cooperate
in the decision-making process;
- The history of participation of each parent in the decision-making process; and
- The parties' geographical proximity to each other.
How does the Washington family law court determine where the children will reside?
Washington's laws regarding parenting plans are intended to serve the
best interests of the children. In most cases, this means the court will
want minor children to have frequent and continuing contact with both
parents, so long as each parent will act in the best interests of the
children. In certain circumstances and where it is in the best interests
of the children, the family law court may enter an equal-time (50/50)
residential schedule. Before doing so, the court will want to see that,
the parents have agreed to such provisions, or the parents have a history
of shared parenting that demonstrate their ability to work together. The
court will also consider the parties geographic proximity to the extent
that it is necessary to ensure the ability to share performance of the
When determining residential schedules of children, Washington courts use
the following factors:
- The strength, nature, and stability of your children's relationship
with you and your spouse, including a consideration of each of your performances
of daily parental functions;
- Agreements between you and your spouse;
- The past actions and future potential of you and your spouse in parenting
- Specific emotional needs and developmental abilities of your children;
- Your children's relationship with siblings and other significant adults,
along with your children's involvement with their physical surroundings,
school, or other significant activities;
- The wishes of you and your spouse;
- The wishes of your children so long as they are mature enough to express
- Any spousal or child abuse or neglect, or any substance abuse; and
- The employment schedules of you and your spouse.
The family law court usually does not consider:
- Your income;
- Your marital conduct (such as behavior that led to the divorce);
- Your remarriage;
- Your sexual orientation; and
- Your likelihood in fostering your child's relationship with the other parent.
It is unlikely that the court will consider these last factors, unless
they could cause emotional or physical damage to your children. For example,
one Washington court decision held that a father's sexual orientation
was not a bar to custody or to reasonable rights of visitation, and reiterated
that visitation rights must be determined with reference to the needs
of the child rather than the sexual orientation of the parties.
Do courts prefer mothers to have custody?
When determining residential time with the children, it is improper for
a court to give either parent preferential treatment based on gender.
This is an important statement, as there is so much popular misinformation
about divorce. Washington laws specifically state that divorce courts
shall not give preference to either parent on the basis of that parent's
gender. That said, as discussed below, primary residential time, is commonly
awarded to the parent taking greater responsibility for performing parenting
functions prior to, and during, the dissolution process. In families today,
it is common for the mother to take on more of the parenting functions,
but this does not make the court's decisions based on gender alone.
Under the law, an equally involved father should have the same likelihood
of being named primary residential parent, as a stay- at-home mother (assuming
that all other facts are the same).
Does it matter who does the most parenting while we are separated?
As discussed previously, a temporary parenting plan may be entered while
you wait for your dissolution to be finalized, and a permanent parenting
plan to be ordered. During a hearing regarding the temporary parenting
plan, the Washington family law court will consider which parent had greater
responsibility for performing parenting functions over the previous twelve
months. During the temporary phase, the court will be looking at which
parenting arrangements will cause the least disruption to your children's
emotional stability. So, the parenting that you do prior to the temporary
hearing will be important for the temporary hearing. However, in determining
the provisions of your final parenting plan later, the court may not draw
presumptions based on your temporary plan.
Are siblings always kept together?
As stated previously, the goal of the court is to make decisions that will
work in the "best interests of the child." Typically, keeping
siblings (or half-siblings) together serves the best interests of the
children. However, under some circumstances courts have found that siblings'
interests would be better served by being separated.
Can we agree on a parenting plan?
Yes. As with most issues arising out of dissolution proceedings, the parties
and their attorneys may negotiate, arbitrate or mediate to make a decision
regarding the parenting plan without the assistance of the court. In fact,
excepting cases involving domestic violence, the courts require mediation
of custody disputes to encourage parties to resolve disputes early in
litigation. In many cases, especially where both parents have helped care
for the children and there is no abuse or current drug use, but the parents
cannot effectively co-parent, it may not be clear how a divorce court
will decide the issue of residential time. A custody evaluator's opinion,
in addition to your lawyer's own experience, may help you understand
the decision the court would likely reach at trial. With that information,
you will be better able to negotiate the best parenting plan for you and
Can my child decide their residential schedule?
Washington courts may consider the requests of a child only f the child
is considered old enough and mature enough. There is no set age when a
child is deemed old enough and mature enough to have input in the process.
If there is a custody evaluation, the evaluator will interview your child.
If the child expresses his or her desires during that interview, the evaluator
may include that input in the evaluator's report. In some cases, the
court may also appoint a separate Washington family law attorney or guardian
ad litem to represent your child and advocate for him or her in the divorce process.
It is unlikely that your child will be permitted to testify in court. Most
judges discourage children from becoming directly involved in the divorce
process. If your child does have the opportunity to provide their opinion
during the dissolution process, it is important that the child does not
appear coached by a parent. The judge and any other court professional
will likely be able to tell that the child has been told what to say.
This could cause the court to disregard the child's opinion, or suggest
to the court that you are manipulating the child in the dissolution process.
Parenting Evaluators in Washington
The Washington family law court may appoint (or you and your spouse may
jointly hire) a professional parenting evaluator to assist in the decisions
related to parenting of your children. You should speak with a Washington
family law attorney prior to your parenting evaluation.
What does the parenting evaluator do?
In Washington, the parenting evaluator is an independent third party (usually
a licensed psychologist, clinical social worker or therapist). Parenting
evaluators investigate the situation and makes recommendations about the
status and needs of the children, and what residential schedule would
best serve the children. The evaluator interviews your children, and may
conduct home visits so that they can also review the children's living
areas, and observe you and your child interacting. The evaluator will
also interview you and your spouse. In many cases, the evaluator will
also interview your children's teachers and doctors, and family friends
suggested by both parties. This can assist the evaluator in making their
recommendations. The evaluator's recommendation is not a determination
of parental fitness or a competition between homes for the children. Rather,
the evaluator attempts to assist the judge (who cannot spend hours with
the family) by recommending the best situation for your children. The
judge is not required to follow the suggestion of the parenting evaluator.
Who pays the parenting evaluator?
One or both of the parties must pay the evaluator. The evaluator's
fees are generally similar to other psychologists' hourly rates. No
matter who pays the evaluator, the evaluator is neutral. He or she does
not represent one party or the other the way an attorney does.
Can my Washington family law attorney help me with the evaluation?
Yes, an experienced Washington family law attorney may be able to assist
you in finding a proficient, qualified evaluator for your case. Your attorney
will also help you prepare for your interview with the evaluator.
What should I tell the evaluator?
If a parenting evaluator is appointed in your case, it is in your best
interest to fully participate in the evaluation process. Return phone
calls, attend all scheduled appointments, and provide any documents or
forms the evaluator needs in a timely manner. Show the evaluator professionalism
and respect—remember that the evaluator is a neutral party, not
your therapist, lawyer, or advocate. The evaluator is interested only
in the custody and parenting plan issues of your divorce. You may tell
the evaluator the facts about parenting issues that have occurred. Present
pertinent information to the evaluator in a composed, factual manner.
Does the court always agree with the custody evaluation?
The Washington family law court is not required to accept the evaluator's
recommendations, as they are only advisory. However, most judges give
significant consideration to the evaluator's report when they make
decisions about parenting plan issues.
Divorcing parents of minor children must complete a parenting plan. In
some cases, you will begin with a temporary parenting plan for the time
between the filing of the petition through the dissolution being finalized.
Then, when the dissolution is finalized, the court will enter a final
parenting plan. In many cases, the final parenting plan will closely resemble
the temporary parenting plan, but this is not always true.
What is included in a parenting plan in Washington?
Washington parenting plans must be completed on a mandatory form. The form
contains provisions for which parent the children will live with, the
amount of time the children will spend with each parent, whether the parents
will make major decisions regarding the children together or separately
(and if so, which parent will make the decisions), and how the parents
will resolve disputes.
Washington parenting plan provisions can be quite detailed. The residential
schedule, for example, not only describes how your children will share
their time with both parents, but also describes how your children will
spend weekends, holidays, birthdays, and vacations. Washington parenting
plans may also include provisions for information sharing and access,
telephone access, transportation between homes, and relocation of parents.
In some cases, parents choose to make plans even more detailed. This can
be beneficial in cases where families hope to remain consistent in both
households, and where the parents want to have limited contact after the
divorce is finalized.
What if my spouse and I cannot agree on a parenting plan?
In most cases, it is best to try and negotiate and agree upon the provisions
of the parenting plan. In such cases, and so long the plan is drafted
to serve the best interests of your children, the Washington family law
court will likely approve your agreement. When parents are unable to agree
on a parenting plan, the family law court and other agencies will become
involved and will work to create a parenting plan that meets the following goals:
- Provides for your children's physical care;
- Maintains your children's emotional stability;
- Adjusts to maintain developmental and age appropriateness as time passes.
This should also help minimize the need for future modifications of the plan;
- Delegates authority and responsibility;
- Minimizes exposure to parental conflict; and
- Encourages resolution of disputes outside of court.
What else can I put in the parenting plan?
Parenting plans can be drafted to fit the needs of your individual family.
Every child comes with his or her own needs. In respect for the variation
among children and families, the parenting plan mandatory form allows
for what are called "other provisions." Frequently used "other
- An agreement as to how the children will be disciplined;
- A prohibition on unrelated adult guests staying overnight while the children
are present, so that your children are not made aware of a parent having
- The "right of first refusal" regarding childcare. This requires
that if the parent with whom the children are scheduled to reside cannot
provide care, the other parent will have the right to refuse caring for
the children his or herself before the care is provided by a third party; and
- A prohibition on making derogatory comments about the other parent.
While such provisions may be difficult for the court to later enforce,
if mutually created they may be followed without the need for court intervention.
Importantly, in most cases the provisions apply to both parties, so usually
it is advisable to include only provisions you are comfortable living
with. Discuss with your Washington family law attorney about what level
of detail you should have in your parenting plan.
Can a parenting plan be changed later?
Yes, but not without difficulty. Washington family law courts tend to view
modifications of the parenting plan as disruptive to the children. As
such, a substantial change in circumstances of either the children or
the other parent (the residential parent) is required to modify a parenting
plan. In addition, the change sought in the parenting plan must be in
the children's best interest.
It is important that you discuss how your parenting plan might be affected
by possible future events, such as remarriage, the child getting older,
relocation, and the child's preferences about where to live. It may
be especially useful to create contingencies for minor changes—such
as at what point tardiness for parenting time cancels such time, when
a parent must inform the other parent of selected vacations, and whether
there will be make-up time for missed parenting time. This will both minimize
the need for modifications, and give both parties a framework for dealing
with life's changing circumstances. A well-drafted parenting plan
can last for many years, or even until the children reach adulthood.
Sometimes even a well-written parenting plan requires modification. If
a modification becomes necessary, a Washington family law attorney who
is qualified and experienced in parenting plan modifications can advise
you how strong your case for modification is.
Do parenting plans allow parental relocation?
The Washington Relocation Act provides the procedure a primary residential
parent must follow when that parent wants to move with the children outside
the current school district boundaries. In brief, the moving parent must
provide notification to the other party that he or she intends to move.
Then, the other parent then has thirty days to object and to request a
parenting plan modification. Post-divorce relocation is a separate and
complicated issue (discussed in more detail in Part 8 of this guide).
If you intend to relocate with your children, you should speak with a
Washington family law attorney.
What if there is abuse?
Under Washington law, if a court finds that one parent has engaged in certain
conduct—including abuse of a child or a history of acts of domestic
violence—then in most cases, the court must limit that parent's
residential time and cannot order joint decision-making. If there are
safety or abuse issues in your marriage or with your children, you may
wish to consider a safety-focused parenting plan. In Washington, your
options generally include the following:
- If you feel your child would be unsafe if left alone with the other parent,
you may request that the child have no visitation with the other parent,
or that all visits occur in the presence of another adult. This might
mean a paid professional, or another trusted adult willing to take on
the responsibility of monitoring your child's safety. To require that
your spouse have only supervised time, you must show that there is a clear
danger to your child. In practice, this is often difficult to prove unless
there is clear evidence (such as police or doctors' reports) of child abuse.
- Some parents feel that their child could be adequately protected without
supervision if the other parent was permitted to only have the child for
limited amounts of time. In that case, parents might request that the
other parent have no overnights, or visits lasting longer than a few hours.
- If the concern is for the parent's safety, and not for the safety of
the child, the plan can minimize or eliminate interaction between parents.
This can be achieved by requiring drop off and pick up to occur in a public
place (even a police station) rather than at your homes. You may also
need a restraining order against your spouse. This method can also be
helpful for parties that have been falsely accused of being abusive or
harassing. When the child is transferred in public, it provides potential
witnesses to any abuse, or lack thereof.
The parties may request and/or the court may impose other restrictions
requiring that parent to complete domestic violence or substance abuse
treatment, to submit to random drug or alcohol tests, and/or to complete
a parenting class. If you have concerns regarding you or your children's
safety from your spouse, bring this up with your Washington divorce attorney
at your first consultation.
Rights of Parents in Washington
Along with residential time and decision-making provisions provided in
your parenting plan, both parents always (unless ordered by a court) have
certain rights in Washington. Among these rights, and often at issue in
divorce, are the following:
- The right to inspect and receive school records and to consult with school
staff concerning your child's welfare and education; and
- The right to consult with any person who may provide care or treatment
for your child and to inspect and receive your child's medical, dental,
and psychological records.
In practice, these rights can be exercised by requesting the information
from the third parties. If you do not want to attend a joint school conference
including both parents, ask when parent-teacher conferences are scheduled
and ask that your child be assigned two conferences (one for each parent).
Ask your child's teacher to provide a second set of report cards,
school fliers, and picture order forms for your home. Call your child's
doctor and ask for a copy of his or her medical record.
The Washington child custody laws allow both parents to access this information
from third parties (like doctors and schools). The law does not require
one parent to provide the information to the other parent. However, one
parent's unreasonable refusal to provide such information could be
punishable by the court, depending on the circumstances.
Please note, parents involved in family counseling with their children,
or whose children are in counseling themselves, may need legal advice
regarding the ability of the other parent to obtain treatment notes and
other records from the counselor.
Parents, regardless of who is the primary residential parent, have certain
responsibilities to the other parent after divorce. Washington law requires
that both parents provide each other with current addresses and contact
telephone numbers. Parents must also immediately notify the other parent
of any emergency circumstances or substantial changes in the health of
Termination of Parental Rights in Washington
Can a court terminate someone's parental rights in Washington?
There are very limited circumstances in which a parent's rights can
be terminated. Parental rights are strongly favored in Washington. Almost
all divorcing or divorced parents maintain their right to a relationship
with their child after divorce. However, a person's parental rights
may be terminated in Washington if the court finds it is in the child's
best interest because of that parent's abuse, neglect, or abandonment
of the child. A parent's rights may be terminated only after the child
has been found to be a dependent child.
Can someone give up parental rights in Washington?
While parental rights can be taken from a parent (in limited and extreme
circumstances) as stated above, a person cannot voluntarily give up parental
rights. There is an exception to this rule when another adult (often a
stepparent) is prepared to adopt the child.
Relinquishment of parental rights and adoption are complex matters that
have their own legal processes, separate from your divorce case. If you
have questions about this issue, discuss them with your Washington family
law attorney at your soonest opportunity.
How does termination of rights affect child support in Washington?
Future obligations for financial support of your child are terminated when
parental rights are terminated. Termination may also end any obligation
for past-due child support, if the court agrees to such arrangements.
Grandparent Rights in Washington
Can non-parents get visitation in Washington?
Under the law, grandparents are not parents, and there is currently no
statute in place in Washington State for non-parental visitation apart
from a non-parental custody action described below. In 2000, Washington
laws that granted non-parental visitation were declared unconstitutional.
Consequently, until the Washington State Legislature acts, non-parental
visitation may only be accomplished by agreement between the involved parties.
Can non-parents get custody in Washington?
There are limited circumstances in which non-parents may obtain legal custody
of a child. A person who is not the parent of a child, but who wishes
to obtain custody of a child must do so by initiating a non-parental custody
action. The non-parental custody action is sometimes referred to as a
"grandparents' custody action" because it is frequently
used by grandparents seeking custody of a grandchild whom they believe
is being mistreated, neglected or abused. The non-parent party seeking
custody will be successful only if the child is not residing with either
parent, or if the party can allege and prove that neither parent is a
Attempting to gain custody of a child who is not your own is a complex
and highly emotional process. If you are thinking of seeking non-parental
custody, or if someone has brought a non-parental custody action against
you, you should consult with an experienced Washington family law attorney.
Stepparent Rights and Responsibilities in Washington
When a stepparent adopts a stepchild, the stepparent's legal responsibilities
to the child are the same as if the stepparent was the natural parent
of the child. This includes the same rights to custody and child support
if the adopted parent (formerly stepparent) and the child's other
parent end their marriage.
Assuming there has not been a formal adoption by the stepparent, parental
rights and responsibilities will probably go away if the parties divorce.
Any financial obligation a stepparent has to their stepchildren ends when
a divorce is finalized. Some stepparents are surprised to learn that during
the divorce process, they will likely be obligated to continue to pay
support for their stepchildren. Non-adoptive stepparents may seek residential
time and other rights to the stepchildren. A stepparent concerned about
maintaining their relationship with their stepchildren, should discuss
their options with a Washington family law attorney qualified to address
Non-Biological Parent Rights and Responsibilities in Washington
Washington courts have found, under limited circumstances, non-biological
parents to have legal rights to children as "de facto" parents.
The de facto parent doctrine applies to non-biological parents of children
raised by non-married couples. If a person is able to show that they are
a defacto parent, the court may grant that non-biological parent the same
legal rights to visitation, child custody, and child support if it is
in the best interests of the child.
A person does not become a de facto parent by simply being involved in
a child's life. Instead, it applies only to those adults who have
fully and completely undertaken a permanent, unwavering, committed, and
responsible parental role in the child's life. To be recognized by
the courts as a de facto parent the natural or legal parent of the child
must have consented to and encouraged the de facto parent's close
relationship with the child.
While Washington courts had previously stated that the de facto parent
doctrine does not apply to stepparents, the courts recently reversed this
rule and held that there is no absolute bar on a stepparent asserting
de facto status, as having one would "preclude legitimate parent-child
relationships from being adjudicated."
In re Custody of B.M.H., 179 Wn.2d 224, 229, 315 P.3d 470 (2013).
If you think you might qualify as a de facto parent, it is important that
you discuss this issue with a Washington family law attorney.
Washington Child Support
Parenting plans and residential schedules are not the only issues divorcing
parents of minor children need to address. It is also necessary to determine
how financial support of the children should be apportioned between the
parties. The determination of Washington child support can be a complicated
process. In addition to the income of both parties, other factors can
become important as child support is determined. These other factors include:
other children of either party, underemployment or unemployment issues,
whether either party receives commissions or bonuses, the residential
schedule of the children, whether the child has special needs or other
circumstances requiring additional support, and more. To ensure the proper
level of child support is available for your children now and as they
grow, legal advice on child support is strongly recommended from a qualified
Washington family law attorney.
Which children receive child support?
Children under age 18 may be entitled to Washington child support unless
they are married, emancipated, or have become self-supporting. Usually,
child support obligations end when a child turns 18, or graduates from
high school (depending on the order of child support). However, there
are instances where child support can be required beyond high school and
18. Some children over the age of 18 may be entitled to child support
if they are disabled and unable to become self-supporting. Adult children
attending college or technical school on a full-time basis may also qualify
for continued support for the purpose of completing school. There are
time limits on when a parent can seek to have child support continue beyond
18. If your child is close to reaching the age of majority (or graduating)
and you have not addressed how you and the child's other parent will
support your adult child, an appointment with a family law attorney is
Who pays child support in Washington?
In Washington, either parent may be ordered to pay support.
Can we agree on a child support level that differs from the schedule?
The Washington family law court's purpose in setting child support
is ensuring that your children have enough financial support to meet their
needs. In the majority of cases, parents will not be permitted to opt
out of their child support duties by agreement. However, the parents may
have some leeway to decide an amount different than the Washington support
guidelines, if the court finds that the different amount will still provide
support requisite to provide for the child's needs. This might occur
if the residential parent's income is high enough to support the child
without the need for child support. Washington courts are not bound to
an agreement between the parents. Even when spouses agree to a child support
amount, the court can choose to order a different amount.
How does a court determine Washington child support?
The court determines the amount of child support to be paid using the Washington
support guidelines. The guidelines require the court to consider of all
income of each parent, including income from employment (including salary,
bonuses, commissions, etc.), self-employment, spousal maintenance, and
rental properties. Parents that are unemployed or underemployed may be
imputed an income. The imputation is usually based on that parent's
past earnings and potential earnings.
Frequently, parents agree on the facts related to child support (for instance,
income figures), and the court will simply calculate the amount of support
using the Washington child support guidelines and schedule. In addition
to determinations of income, other facts can affect the child support
level. If the child spends a significant amount of time with the parent
paying child support (thus, requiring that parent to cover more of the
child's living expenses while in that parent's care), the court
can choose to adjust the child support amount based on the residential
schedule. The costs of health insurance and childcare costs affect the
amount of support ordered. In some cases, the family law court may award
a child support amount different from the amount indicated in the child
support schedule. This is called a deviation. Reasons for deviation include
- The possession of wealth;
- The income of a spouse or domestic partner;
- Child support actually received from other relationships;
- Evidence of a parent's other available resources;
- Gifts and nonrecurring income;
- Tax planning considerations;
- The extraordinary debt not voluntarily incurred of a parent;
- The special needs of the child; and
- The significant disparity in the living costs of the parents due to conditions
beyond their control.
For parents with high net worth, it is crucial that your Washington family
law attorney has trusted relationships with accountants and tax professionals
to analyze the family assets and calculate Washington child support appropriate
for your situation.
What if one parent is unemployed, employed only part time, or underemployed?
If a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, courts will impute
income to him or her. However, courts may decide not to impute if the
unemployed or underemployed parent can show that he has good cause for
not having full-time employment. Good cause might be a shortage of jobs
in the parent's field, or the parent being disabled. If there's
no good cause, the court determines the unemployed or underemployed parent's
imputed income based on the following information in the following order
- Full-time earnings at the parent's current rate of pay;
- Full-time earnings at the parent's historical rate of pay;
- Full-time earnings at the parent's past rate of pay; or
- Full-time earnings at minimum wage in the jurisdiction where the paying
If the court cannot obtain any of the above-listed information, the court
will use the median income for a person of that parent's age and gender
as provided for by statute in that parent's residential state. In
some cases, the income imputed to a parent may be higher than the amount
that parent is actually able to earn.
Is child support tied to residential time?
A parent ordered to pay Washington child support remains legally obligated
to make those payments, whether or not that parent receives residential
time with the child. Having residential time with the child and payment
of child support are separate rights in the eyes of the court. As such,
one parent cannot withhold financial support due to missed parenting time,
and a parent may not deny the other parent parenting time because of missed
child support payments. There are other actions that may be taken to address
the other parent's failure to pay child support, or failure to provide
the court-ordered parenting time. If this is an issue in your life, you
should speak with a family law attorney to learn your options.
How and to whom is Washington child support paid?
In general, Washington child support payments will be made on a monthly
basis. The order of child support will dictate whether the support payments
should be made directly to the other parent, or to the Washington State
Division of Child Support (which will then pass on the payments to the
receiving parent). Even if paying the other parent directly, always pay
with a check and keep a copy of the check for your records.
What if a parent owes back child support?
Sometimes parents fail to pay Washington child support, and the other parent
goes back to the Washington family law court to collect the missing support.
Parents should know that collection steps may include wage garnishment,
bank account garnishment, seizure of retirement plan funds, liens on property,
seizure of tax refunds, revocation of passports, suspension of driver's
or business licenses, or even jail time. If you are unable to pay child
support as ordered by the courts, you should speak with a Washington family
law attorney immediately.
Can Washington child support orders be modified?
Yes, the Washington child support order and amount can be adjusted or modified
based on changes after the entry of the original support order in either
parent's income as well as the needs of the child.
When does child support terminate?
In most cases, child support ends when a child either turns 18 years old
or graduates from high school, whichever comes later. Your children also
may be eligible to receive child support if enrolled in a post-secondary
school. Different provisions may apply if a child is significantly disabled.
Requests for post-secondary support must be made prior to the original
Washington Child Support Provision: Health Insurance and Health Care Costs
Washington state child support orders contain provisions regarding health
care insurance for your children and the payment of any uninsured health
care costs. If private medical and dental insurance for your children
is available to you or your spouse privately, through a public program,
or through an employer, you may be required to provide it. If insurance
for your children is inaccessible, then the court may order a certain
monthly or percentage amount of cash medical support be paid. Cash medical
support is an amount in addition to the basic child support that a parent
is ordered to pay to assist with the cost of health care coverage by the
other parent or to help with the uninsured medical expenses of the child.
Even if you have health insurance for your children, the court may order
cash medical support for uninsured expenses. This is often ordered as
a percentage of responsibility. The percentage is usually based on the
parties' comparative incomes. For example, if the parent ordered to
pay child support earns about 60% of the parties' joint earnings,
that parent may also be ordered to pay 60% of any uninsured medical expenses
for the children.
Sometimes it is difficult for one parent to get the other parent to contribute
their share of the uninsured medical costs. It can also be difficult for
that party to communicate with the other party when these expenses are
incurred. For these reasons, some parents choose to require a periodic
accounting of these expenses, possibly through their family law attorneys.
Washington Child Support Provision: Childcare Costs
In addition to health care expenses, your Washington child support order
will also make provisions for payment for childcare services. These expenses
are usually shared by the parents in the same proportion as the basic
child support obligation. A parent's proportional share can be paid
to the parent who makes the entire payment or to the childcare provider directly.
Washington Child Support Provision: Life Insurance
Some parents choose to (or are required to) include a provision requiring
the paying party to maintain life insurance within their Washington child
support order. In these cases, the child is made the beneficiary, and
the other parent is made the trustee, and provided a constructive trust
over the insurance proceeds. The life insurance is meant to protect the
child's right to financial support. This means that if the paying
parent dies, the child will have an amount equivalent to that of child
support available as an insurance payout. However, life insurance provisions
can have future complications. You should discuss with your Washington
divorce attorney the best way to create a life insurance provision in
Washington Child Support Provision: College Costs
Can my college-aged child get child support?
Maybe. While not mandatory in Washington, a court may order support for
your child beyond high school and the age of 18. To be eligible for such
support you must petition the court before the termination of the regular
child support order. The post-secondary child support may continue for
each of your children until that child turns 23 years old, if the child
is attending school. There are some restrictions:
- The child must be attending an accredited academic or vocational school
on a full-time basis;
- The child must be in good academic standing as defined by the school attended;
- The child must provide his or her parents with academic records and grades; and
- The child support payments must go directly to the educational institution
or directly to the child when feasible.
You should consult a Washington family law attorney prior to making any
agreement to pay support for your college-aged child. There are many issues
to consider, among them: you may want to define the time for the support,
the maximum level of cost for the education, how you will share expenses,
and whether your child will be responsible for some portion of the expenses.
Are there limitations to college support?
If you and your spouse are able to agree on a provision regarding college
costs, then you may be able to include many restrictions or requirements
that a court-created Washington child support order would not usually
include. For instance, your agreement could include a maximum degree cost,
semester expense accounting by your child, indexing the support amount
to costs at your child's state college, or requirement of payment
through a Section 529 prepaid tuition plan.
Do colleges consider both parents' income when awarding financial aid?
When a child of divorced parents wants to obtain financial aid, the primary
residential parent is responsible for filing the Free Application for
Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). (Read the FAFSA instructions carefully, as
they may define "custodial parent" differently than your divorce
judgment.) The FAFSA requests information on the child's household
income at the home of the primary parent. This means the primary parent
must include information on the spousal maintenance and child support
received, but the FAFSA does not require information on the non-primary
residential parent's household income. Please note, some private colleges
do consider the non-primary residential parent's income and assets
when determining whether to award financial assistance.
Go to Part 5 - Division of Assets & Debts