In Washington, a court could order one or both parents to support a child (or children). Usually, however, it’s the non-custodial parent – the parent who spends less than half of the time with the child (or children) – who actually pays support. The custodial parent – the parent who has the most time with the child – remains responsible for child support too, but in most cases the law assumes that this parent spends the required amount of support directly on the child.
You can estimate your share of support by using the state’s worksheets and child support schedule (sometimes called the child support economic table). The schedule shows how much the basic amount of child support should be based on the combined income of both parents, the number of children, and the children’s ages.
In addition to the basic support shown by the schedule, however, parents must also cover additional expenses. Both parents must share childcare and other costs, like those required for the child’s education or travel for visitation. Also, a court will order one or both parents to cover the child’s medical care. This could mean everything from providing dental insurance to reimbursement for prescriptions.
While parents may agree to pay more that what the schedule proposes, they can’t pay less. In any event, a court must approve the final amount. Depending on each parent’s needs and the best interest of the child, a court could adjust the payments up or down.
To use the schedule, the first thing you need to know is the gross and net incomes of both parents. Gross income is all income from all sources. This includes your salary, wages, bonuses, and commissions from your job, but also any pension or severance pay. It is also money that comes from any dividends, interest, or a trust, among other things. If you are unemployed, chances are you still have income for child support purposes in the form of social security, workers’ compensation, unemployment or disability benefits. Income could also come from veteran’s benefits.
Even the deadbeat parent who tries to avoid responsibility for child support by not working will be held accountable for a share of the combined income. A court has the authority to impute (attribute) income to a parent who is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed based upon that parent's work history, education, health, and age, among other factors.
There are a few benefits that you can leave out of gross income like gifts, prizes, food stamps, and spousal support received from another relationship. If either parent married someone else, then exclude that other spouse’s income, too.
Once you have both parents’ gross income, you make deductions to determine the net income for each. Net income is gross income minus state and federal income taxes, FICA taxes, and court-ordered maintenance (like spousal support or child support from another case) already paid. You can also deduct some retirement and pension contributions, dues, and business expenses. For a complete list of these deductions, see the Revised Code of Washington 26.19.071 and the Washington Courts Schedule and Worksheets.
You can click on this link to access Washington's Child Support Schedule. You use the combined net income of both parents (in other words, add your net income to the other parent’s net income) to determine the total amount of child support due. This total amount is then divided between the parents in the same proportion as what they contribute individually to the combined income.
It works like this: let’s say that Parent A and Parent B have one child together and their combined income is $1,000. Based on the child support schedule, they must cover a total of $220 in child support per month. If Parent A contributes 60% of the combined income (or $600 per month), then this parent will pay 60% of the total child support, or $132 per month. Parent B, who makes 40% of the combined income (or $400), will pay only 40%, or $88 per month in child support.
$1,000 is the lowest combined income on the schedule. If the parents’ combined income is lower than this amount, then a court will look at each household’s resources and living expenses to come up with a fair payment. The minimum amount of support is $50 per month. The maximum is 45% of a parent’s net income, unless there is some good reason – such as substantial wealth – for that percentage to increase.
Sometimes, the total amount given by the guidelines or the way that number is divided is unfair to a parent or the child. Before a child support order is in place, either parent can ask to adjust the amount of support. In that case, a court will review a long list of factors to either increase or decrease the amount of child support. These factors include:
You can find a complete list of these factors in the Revised Code of Washington 26.19.075.
Once a child support order is in place, you can still ask the court to modify (change) it at any time. If it’s been less than one year since the order was issued or modified, then you must have a substantial change in circumstances - like the loss of a job - to justify a change in the amount of child support. However, a paying parent’s voluntary unemployment or underemployment is not by itself a substantial change in circumstances; there has to be a very good reason why this parent is working less or not at all. After the order has been in place for a year, you do not need a substantial change in circumstances. Instead, a court can increase or decrease the amount of support if meeting the terms of the order has created a severe economic hardship on either parent or on the child.
In addition to the links above, you can read Washington law on enforcing a child support order in the Revised Code of Washington 26.18. Also see the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services for additional tools and tips for establishing and modifying child support orders.