Most people understand child support as money divorced parents pay to "support" their children's general living costs. In Washington State, divorce courts have limited discretion to decide who pays child support and how much is paid. Instead, judges follow an income-based formula designed to provide for basic needs until children either reach age 18, or if still attending high school (also known as "secondary school) upon graduation. This transition into adulthood is known as "emancipation".
In short, child support literally is child support.
In rare situations parents may be required to keep paying support even after children graduate secondary school or otherwise reach adulthood. Courts can order continuing support for dependent special needs or disabled children, for example. But post-secondary support can also include tuition and costs for children who simply want to attend trade school, vocational school or college. Known specifically as "post-secondary educational support," this type of support can be seen as "adult support".
Where both parents agree, post-secondary support can be included in a settlement agreement or child support order. If not, the primary parent or guardian must petition the court for post-secondary support. The petition must be filed before the child turns 18 years old and/or before an existing child support order expires. And while courts must follow a simple formula to calculate basic child support obligations, they can consider multiple case-by-case factors in deciding whether to award post-secondary support.
The court first examines whether the child 'relies upon the parents for the reasonable necessities of life' like food, medical care and clothing. Next, the court also looks at:
While post-secondary support usually includes items like college or trade-school tuition, rent, residence hall dues, health fees, insurance, books, and supplies, parents have also been responsible for costs ranging from bed linens to graduate school tuition. postsecondary educational support is divided between the two parents according to their net income.
Washington law places conditions on post-secondary support. The child must actively pursue a course of study that fulfills his or her career goals at an accredited institution, while maintaining good academic standing. "Good academic standing" means obtaining a minimum GPA or successfully completing a given number of credit hours as determined by the institution. The child must also give both parents full and equal access to academic records and grades. Support is automatically suspended if the child fails to comply.
Wherever possible, parents pay tuition directly to the school. If direct payment isn't possible, the court can order parents to make payments to the child, provided the child is living independently. If the child is living with a parent, the non-custodial parent may need to pay either the child or the parent.
Barring exceptional circumstances (most likely a child's continuing mental, physical, or emotional disability), a parent cannot be forced to pay beyond the child's twenty-third birthday.