Guide to Getting a Divorce in Washington State

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 each parent.
  • 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.

Residential Schedule

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.")

Decision-Making Authority

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 decision-making authority:

  • 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 parenting functions.

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 your children;
  • 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 an opinion;
  • 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 your children.

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.

Parenting Plans

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 provisions" include:

  • 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 sexual partners;
  • 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 your children.

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 suitable custodian.

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 stepparent issues.

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 recommended.

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 following:

  • 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 of priority:

  • 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 parent resides.

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 order terminating.

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 your case.

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

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