Losing a job can be a challenge for any parent, but it may be even more difficult for a parent who owes child support. A job loss or termination may be equally stressful for a parent who depends on child support to help clothe and feed their child. But a parent’s legal obligation to financially support their child does not automatically end merely because a job does.
While some job losses are outside a parent’s control, other times a parent may quit a well-paying job as a way of avoiding child support. However, Washington courts are prepared to deal with these types of situations and can impute income to parents who try to avoid their child support obligations. This article provides a general overview of how and under what circumstances courts will impute income for child support purposes in Washington. If after reading this article, you still have questions about imputing income, you should contact a local family law attorney for advice.
Washington maintains state guidelines for calculating child support that are based primarily upon the gross monthly incomes of the parents. For child support purposes, a parent’s gross monthly income includes their salary, wages, overtime, commissions, tips, severance pay, worker’s compensation benefits, bonuses, dividends, social security, capital gains and royalties. Unlike some other states, gross income in Washington may also include a parent’s income from a second job. If a court determines that a parent is voluntarily earning less than they could or should be earning, the court may impute income to that parent for child support purposes. See Child Support in Washington (Nolo) to learn more.
Courts may impute or attribute income in situations where a parent responsible for paying child support (the paying parent) is capable of earning more, but simply chooses not to due to voluntary unemployment or underemployment and doesn’t have justification for their diminished earnings.
A parent is voluntary unemployed when the parent is able to work but elects not to without a justifiable medical reason. Voluntary unemployment situations include those where a parent quits their job, intentionally gets fired, or is laid off but refuses to seek new employment opportunities.
An underemployment situation exists when a parent takes any action that negatively affects their income. In considering whether a parent is voluntarily underemployed, courts look at the parent’s work history, education, age and health to decide whether the parent’s abilities, education and training and a reasonable amount of effort could produce more income. A Washington court will not impute income to a gainfully employed parent unless it determines that the parent is voluntarily underemployed for the purpose of reducing their child support obligation.
Once a court decides that a parent is avoiding child support obligations through an unemployment or underemployment situation, the court will review the parent’s employment history. In deciding how much income to impute, courts may review the parent’s prior tax returns, check stubs or other relevant financial information. The court will impute income in the following order of priority:
Still, even after income has been imputed, either parent may file documents with the court to decrease or increase the amount imputed to a parent based on reliable and clear evidence.
Washington maintains a state website to help parents who want to file a child support modification action on their own at www.courts.wa.gov/forms/. If you have other questions about imputing income for purposes of child support in Washington contact an experienced family law attorney for assistance.
For more information on the factors considered in child support modification actions in Washington see Revised Code of Washington Annotated Title 26, Chapter 26.19.071.