How Is Child Support Determined in Court?

How is Child Support Determined in Court?

Child support is one of the most contentious issues in divorce cases where parties have minor children. Even though Washington state law uses the same complex mathematical formula to determine the amount of child support for each child, there is room for disagreement about the figures the court plugs into the formula. Points of contention can include what’s reasonable in terms of the children’s expenses and how much money each parent earns or should earn. 

A Seattle child support lawyer can help you modify unfairly burdensome child support obligations and resolve disagreements with your ex-spouse about your children’s expenses. This is what you need to know about child support in Washington state. 

Who is responsible for paying child support?

The legal principle behind child support payments is that all children are entitled to receive financial support from both parents. Therefore, if you do not live with your child’s other parent, you have the right to request a child support order. The court issues a child support order in all divorce cases where the parties have at least one child under the age of 18.

It is still possible to get a child support order if you were never married to your child’s other parent, even if you never lived together. Following a court-ordered parenting plan and child support order is much less stressful than having to argue constantly about who gets to spend this weekend with the child and which parent is responsible for what. If you have a child support order, you are legally entitled to spend X number of days per year with your children (the value of X is different in each family’s parenting plan), even if you fall behind on child support payments.

Because of how the child support formula is calculated, the parent with the higher income is usually, but not always, the one who pays child support. The parent with fewer days of residential time may or may not be the one who pays the child support, and the parent with more residential time may or may not be the one to receive it. It is possible, but very unusual, that the parents’ incomes, expenses, and parenting time are so close to equal that neither one must pay child support.

How does the court determine how much child support you must pay?

The court considers several factors when calculating child support:

  • The children’s reasonable expenses.
  • The number of days per year that each parent spends with the children, pursuant to the parenting plan.
  • Each parent’s income.
  • Each parent’s necessary expenses unrelated to child support, such as student loan payments and the costs of commuting to work.

The child support formula sounds simple, but parents can easily disagree about many of the items in the formula. For example, your ex might claim that you are spending too much money on groceries at Whole Foods when you could find better prices at Kroger or Fred Meyer. If your ex used to nag you about every penny when you were married, that probably is not going to change just because you are divorced.

Income, likewise, seems simple but can be fraught with disagreement. You would think that all you have to do is show your pay stubs to the judge, but sometimes it is not that simple. Your ex might argue that you are intentionally earning less income than you could reasonably expect to earn. The court has the option to base the child support amount on your imputed income, which is the amount that you should earn. Imputed income can apply both to a parent who pays child support and to a parent who receives child support.

What happens if you cannot meet your court-ordered child support obligations?

Many people struggle to pay their court-ordered child support. This can occur because the court ordered you to pay too much or because the child support amount was appropriate for your financial situation at the time, but you have since suffered an unavoidable reduction in income.

If you do not pay your court-ordered child support, the court can impose penalties such as garnishing your paychecks, reducing your parenting time, or in the worst cases, imposing a jail sentence. Before a situation gets that bad, you should notify the court that you cannot pay the required amount, and you should request a modification of your child support order. Meanwhile, you should pay as much as you can afford to pay, even if it is not the full amount.

When do child support obligations end?

Your child support obligations for each child end when he or she turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever happens later. Therefore, if your child’s birthday is in August, you will have to keep paying child support until the summer after high school graduation. 

If your child’s birthday is in April, you will still have to make two monthly child support payments after she turns 18. If a teenager becomes an emancipated minor before turning 18, then child support obligations could end upon the teen’s emancipation date. However, in Washington state, child support does not necessarily end when a child turns 18 or graduates from high school. In Washington state, a parent can get postsecondary support.

Contact a Seattle family law attorney for help with parenting plan cases.

At Elise Buie Family Law, our team of Seattle family law attorneys recognizes how frustrating disputes with a co-parent can be, especially over issues related to child support. We have extensive experience helping to resolve disputes between co-parents over child support and other matters related to the children’s expenses and are here to help with yours. Contact us today.


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