Why Parents Need To ‘Lean In’ When It Comes To Paying Child Support in Washington State

In June 2021, 18-year-old Avery Sanford’s mother walked out of her Glen Allen, V.A., home to ask what her ex-husband was dumping in her yard. “It’s your final child support payment,” he shouted as he dropped 80,000 pennies out of a trailer he had attached to his car.

Sanford, her mother, and friends picked up the $800 worth of pennies and decided to turn the public display into a positive experience: they donated the money to Safe Harbor Shelter, a Richmond-based organization devoted to helping domestic violence victims. 

The story, which made national headlines, underscores a long-standing and troubling trend among some divorced parents who, for various reasons, resent paying child support to their ex to care for their children’s basic needs following divorce. The sad part is resentment, hostility, non-compliance with an order to pay child support, and vengeful actions often hurt the children far worse than the ex-spouse, who’s usually the initial target of the aggression.

All you need to do is listen to Avery, who said of her experience, “It’s really hurtful and damaging to your kids when you do things like that. It doesn’t matter if they’re young or an adult, the actions of your parents will always have some effect on you.”

When divorcing moms and dads come to me looking for ways to shirk their responsibility to pay child support, I explain two things to them. First, what child support is and why it’s necessary, and second, why they should “lean in” to their obligation instead of doing everything they can to avoid it.

As always in a divorce involving children, my answers involve putting children’s needs — emotional, physical, and financial — ahead of your own. Not to mention, in Washington State, paying child support is a legal obligation. Parents who fail to pay child support can be held in contempt of court, fined, arrested, and imprisoned. Prison clothes are not an attractive look for parents, especially to their kids.

There are real reasons for child support, but one of them is not to wreak havoc on your life. However, if that’s what’s happening, you may have legitimate recourse through the family court system.

It remains unclear why Avery’s father was so miffed about paying child support because his only explanation to reporters when asked for comment was that he had 18 years of pent up frustration and allowed his emotions to get the best of him. He also said the last thing he wanted to do was drive a bigger wedge between him and his daughter. Perhaps he should have thought of that before withdrawing tens of thousands of pennies from the bank.   

Remember, people are watching — your neighbors, your extended family, your friends, your employer and, most importantly, your kids. So if you’re just plain angry about having to pay child support and want to find a way out of it, here’s what you should know first before deciding if this is indeed the course of action you want to take. But first… 

What is child support?

In Washington State, both parents are responsible for supporting their child during the divorce process and afterward. Depending on various factors, discussed below, one parent may owe the other parent child support. Child support is not considered income to the recipient. The person providing child support pays tax on the income they use to provide child support but will not receive a tax deduction for doing so.

Child support differs from spousal support. Spousal support refers to the support one former partner provides for the other. Unlike child support, spousal support is taxable income to the receiving spouse.

Obligations to pay child support generally end when a child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever is later. However, in some situations, a court may grant post-secondary child support up until the time a child turns 23.

To qualify for extended support, a child must actively study at an accredited college or vocational school and be in good academic standing. Upon filing a petition for post-secondary support, a court may, for example, consider whether the child still relies on their parents for reasonable necessities.

For a child to receive post-secondary support beyond age 23, there would have to be a showing of exceptional circumstances. For example, the child would have to have some mental, physical, or emotional disability to justify the extension.

How is child support calculated in Washington State?

Child support obligations are based primarily on the parents’ net incomes and the child’s expenses. To calculate each parent’s net income, a court will take a parent’s gross income and then deduct specific expenses from it. Those can include, among other considerations, federal and state income taxes, health insurance, 401(k) contributions up to $5,000 per year, pension payments, existing spousal maintenance orders, and mandatory union dues

Child-related expenses can include health insurance, daycare, and out-of-pocket medical costs, among others. Washington courts will then input the parents’ net income and child-related expenses into the Washington Child Support Schedule to complete the calculation.

Where a child has special medical or educational needs, calculating support could become more challenging. The same can be true of a parent who is self-employed whose income may not be as straightforward as a W-2 employee’s. Therefore, when calculating child support, it’s best to consult with a knowledgeable Seattle child support lawyer first.

What if you’re having trouble paying?

According to the Division of Child Support (D.C.S.), even if a parent is unemployed, they’re still responsible for paying child support. For purposes of child support, even unemployment benefits are considered income.

Whether a parent is voluntarily or involuntarily unemployed can make a difference as to how much child support a court will require a parent to pay. If a parent is voluntarily unemployed, a Washington State court may consider several factors regarding their ability to pay, including that parent’s employment history, earnings in the local job market, health, and available assets.

There does exist a presumption that the amount of child support mandated by the Child Support Schedule is correct. However, in some situations, a court may order more or less child support than the calculated amount. When determining if you qualify for a deviation from your existing child support calculation, it’s best to speak with a Seattle divorce and family law attorney.

Do you know what your child hears when you say you don’t want to pay child support?

Having to comply with a child support order can become frustrating, especially if money is tight. However, the worst reaction you can have is to voice your frustration to your children. Even if they’re teens and you think they’ll either understand or side with you, it’s more likely they’ll construe your reluctance to pay as a statement about your feelings toward them.

Kids, especially those with divorced parents, have an uncanny way of internalizing their parents’ conflicts. Such behavior can damage your parent-child relationship permanently or take a long time to undo. When it comes to discussions about divorce and divorce-related finances, it’s a good rule of thumb to keep kids out of them. 

Some parents who are involved in high-conflict divorces or maintain poor co-parenting relationships after divorce also resort to using child support for leverage. These parents may withhold payment to get what they want from an estranged spouse or child. Again, resist the urge to weaponize child support. It can only hurt your children and your relationship with them.     

Consult with a Seattle child support attorney today.

Child support exists for a reason, which is for the sole benefit of the children who receive it. That said, calculating the right amount of child support can be nuanced. Unfortunately, there are also some parents who receive child support on behalf of their children and abuse the system by not allocating what they receive for their kids as they should.

With decades of cumulative experience behind us, our attorneys are well-versed in how to calculate child support in Washington State and can work toward an award that’s fair to both you and your children. Call one of our Seattle child support lawyers now.

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