For parents, divorce often raises many questions surrounding extracurricular activities. These questions usually include whether the children will get to participate in the extracurricular activities (sports, performing arts classes, music lessons, art classes, etc.) they did before the divorce, expanded or different activities as the children mature, and which parent will pay for what percentage of them. Here is how Washington state handles the subject.
Child support and extracurricular activities
Washington state law dictates that both parents must support their children. Child support’s primary purpose is to ensure the child’s basic needs are met. Basic needs include housing, utilities, meals, health care, clothing, and the kind of expenses common and expected that most children would have. In many cases, needs can also include daycare, health insurance, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and reasonable expenses unique to a child’s personal situation. Such “extraordinary expenses” also must be allocated between the parents.
Child support becomes a factor even if the child’s parents are unmarried or are separated. Regardless of marital status, one parent usually must pay a child support transfer payment to contribute to the support being provided by the other parent in the other household.
The child support calculation in Washington state is primarily driven by the parents’ respective incomes. Therefore, when calculating child support and what percentage each parent will be responsible for paying, Washington courts start by entering the parents’ combined income (subject to certain allowed deductions) into the Washington Child Support Schedule.
In Washington state, in contested matters, the special expenses of the children are required by statute and case law to be shared in the same proportion as the basic child support obligation. Having said that, parents can agree to share them in alternative divisions and ask the court to approve that. Also, if the court orders a “deviation” of child support (either a higher amount than the standard calculation or a lower amount than the standard calculation), then even without agreement, the court would then have the authority to order a division other than proportionately.
Where the question exists about which parent is responsible for advancing payment, the court will not simply defer to the parent receiving child support. Rather, the court will consider what payment arrangement is the most practical given the type of expense involved, whether one parent has a history of failure to promptly reimburse the other for their share of expenses, whether there is a benefit to having the transfer payment paying parent share’s added on and bundled into the monthly transfer payment obligation, or whether there are perhaps tax advantages to the family to have the payments originate from a particular parent. The court can also order the parents to remit their respective shares directly to the provider of the service or expense ordered. And in many instances, orders simply provide that the parent who advances payment of a court-ordered expense shall be promptly reimbursed by the other parent for their share.
Mutual agreement to pay for extracurricular activities
The formula for calculating child support must be done in accordance with Washington law, which sets forth certain types of income that are included and types that are not, as well as certain limited allowed deductions. Parents cannot simply agree on how much child support each will pay or for what expenses, and how these expenses will be allocated between them. Such agreements are considered contrary to public policy and are not binding on the court.
Unless there is a valid legal reason for paying child support in an amount other than the accurately calculated amount, the court will not approve the child support order. Moreover, the statute provides that mere agreement between the parents alone is insufficient. Accurately calculated child support, as determined by the Washington legislature, is considered a right of the children to receive from their parents. And as such, neither parent has the right to “waive” receipt of it.
Agreements regarding extracurricular activities are generally easier to navigate. Although daycare or uncovered health care over which parents may only have limited control, for example, are each still considered extraordinary expenses, extracurricular activities can be limited by the parents based on which activities the child will participate in, during which parent’s residential time, budgeted amounts, and “caps” on spending. Additionally, you can stipulate that you and your child’s other parent must agree on the activity before being required to pay your share.
It is important to note that extracurricular activities, especially sports, can involve additional and sometimes hidden costs beyond the initial registration fees, such as uniforms, training materials, the replenishment of outgrown or damaged equipment, or the cost of attending tournaments far away. Therefore, it is advisable to have your agreement reviewed by an experienced family law attorney familiar with negotiating child support agreements.
Without a court order or an enforceable agreement, either parent may find themselves solely responsible for paying for the extracurricular activities they want their children to have. This is because, unless the expenses and the terms of the payment are clearly part of the Child Support Order, one parent cannot simply dictate to the other that they should share in an expense. Therefore, your child support agreement should be in writing and filed with the Washington state family court to avoid confusion.
When co-parents cannot agree on extracurricular activities
During marriage, there is typically some discussion between spouses about whether their child will participate in extracurricular activities, which ones, how the cost will fit into the family budget, and who will be responsible for the tactical details involved, such as getting the child to and from. When parents separate, these discussions can become more strained, to the point of being hostile.
A lack of agreement about extracurriculars between co-parents can be frustrating for everyone involved. A well-written child support order can prevent many such problems. In other cases, clear terms in the parenting plan regarding decision-making in such instances and dispute resolution procedures may need to be utilized. Best practices are to have a well-written parenting plan, court support order, and court orders, each of which is understandable and clear on what is to be shared, in what percentages, how decisions will be made, and what means the parents will use to resolve any disputes regarding such questions.
To minimize conflict regarding extracurricular activities, it is often helpful to consider not simply the impact on one’s own finances and time but that of the other parent as well. For example, parents should consider the cost of the extracurricular activity sustained over time and how it will impact the household budgets of the respective households.
Another consideration is the absent agreement; activities may not be scheduled so that they infringe on the other parent’s residential time. Also, be wary of activities that may make it difficult for you, the other parent, or the child because of exchange times and locations. If, for example, an activity will interfere with one parent’s residential overnight during the week because there is an early morning orchestra rehearsal the next day the child should attend, an agreement would be necessary before committing the child’s time.
Another consideration is your communication style. Is it working currently? Sometimes an informal discussion is enough to iron out details, but agreements should always be memorialized in writing, whether in a text, confirming emails, or an attorney-drafted document. Keeping your child’s other parent in the loop is also another way to keep the relationship amicable.
Finally, one of the worst things you can do is to make promises you cannot keep to your child or put them in the middle of a dispute between you and your ex. Until the parents have reached an agreement on extracurricular activities or resolved a dispute over them, the children should not be promised that they can or cannot participate in an activity. Such decisions are made by the adults — with the help of the court if necessary. The children should not be burdened with taking sides or made to be decision-makers for the grown-ups.
Find a Seattle family law attorney who supports your vision of family life after divorce by minimizing conflict.
At Elise Buie Family Law, our family law attorneys understand that minimizing conflict after divorce and ensuring that each parent works together is critical to ensuring the children’s best interests. Therefore, divorce agreements should be negotiated with conflict resolution, long-term growth for the family, and sustainability in mind. We can help. To discuss the details of your situation, call our Seattle office today.