Child Support Enforcement in Washington

Learn how child support orders are enforced and payments are collected in the State of Washington.

By , J.D. · University of Minnesota School of Law
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One of the sad realities of life is that sometimes when relationships and marriages end, parents either can't or won't pay for their children's expenses.

This article will explain how child support is enforced in the State of Washington. If you have any questions about child support enforcement after you read this article, you should contact a family law attorney for advice.

Establishing Child Support

A child support order is an official government order that indicates who must pay for the medical care and basic support of children. In ordinary circumstances, the "noncustodial parent" (meaning, the parent who spends less time with the children) must make regularly scheduled child support payments to the "custodial parent" (meaning, the parent who cares for the children more often). This approach makes sure that both parents are paying a fair share of the children's expenses.

Many parents who've split up have informal agreements about child support. Sometimes these agreements are written and sometimes they're just spoken. It's good when parents can agree, but unfortunately, these informal agreements don't give state agencies or courts any enforcement power if the noncustodial parent becomes a "delinquent" or "deadbeat" parent who doesn't pay child support. The solution is to make sure, if you have an informal agreement, that you go to court and ask the judge to "incorporate" it (make it part of) into the official court order. Once you have an official court order for child support, then the terms of the agreement can be enforced and delinquent parents can be made to pay up.

Not all couples can agree on child support. If they don't, they will have to go to court and ask the judge to issue an order that establishes the amount and frequency of support.

For a detailed discussion of how child support is calculated and who renders a support decision, please see Child Support in Washington by Teresa Wall-Cyb.

Enforcing Child Support in Family Court

If a noncustodial parent has become delinquent and isn't making payments according to the child support order, the custodial parent has the option to return to court and file an enforcement action. An enforcement action simply asks the judge to make the delinquent parent follow the support order and make the required payments. Custodial parents can file this action and represent themselves in court, or they can hire a private attorney to pursue the action on their behalf.

The judge has several choices in these situations. It's relatively commonplace for judges to fine delinquent parents or put them in jail for "contempt of court" (meaning, the delinquent parent disobeyed a court order – in this case, a child support order). A judge might also require a delinquent parent to pay a portion of the outstanding child support as a condition of being released from jail. Noncustodial parents can avoid all these outcomes by paying their support in full and on time.

State Enforcement of Child Support in Washington

Within the larger Washington State Department of Social and Health Services is a unit called the Division of Child Support (DCS). DCS is tasked with providing child support services to both receiving and non-receiving parents. Federal and state law require the DCS to provide these services, including:

  • establishing paternity of children born to unmarried couples
  • collecting and processing payments, including electronic funds transfers (EFT)
  • providing tribal child support services
  • locating parents who've disappeared, and
  • establishing, modifying, and enforcing child and medical support obligations

If you need to get in touch with DCS, you can find contact information here. You can also read a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions about child support in Washington and access an online list of forms.

How Judges and the State Collect Overdue Payments in Washington

Family court judges and DCS have the ability to deploy legal and financial weapons against delinquent parents who don't pay their child support. The goal is to collect payment from parents with "arrearages" (past-due child support accounts). The long list of tools that judges and/or DCS can use includes:

  • directly taking wages, federal tax returns, unemployment benefits, workman's compensation, certain pensions, lawsuit settlements, bank accounts, and other funds
  • filing liens against real property (land and houses), motor vehicles, and boats
  • seizing property held in safety deposit boxes or items placed for public auction
  • suspending the delinquent parent's driver's, professional, and recreational licenses
  • refusing to issue or renew U.S. passports
  • reporting arrearages to credit reporting agencies
  • referring cases back to court and asking the judge to initiate contempt proceedings
  • posting names on the DCS "most wanted" internet page, and
  • in the case of members of Indian tribes, referring cases to the tribe for enforcement
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