–by Samuel K. Darling, Bellevue Family Law Attorney
This article explains the most important differences when comparing a) a Washington State administrative child support order and b) a court-issued child support order. For the most part they achieve the same result – a child support order based on Washington State’s statutes. They aren’t identical though, and one might be preferable in your unique situation.
If you aren’t familiar with administrative child support orders, they’re established primarily by a Washington State agency named DSHS, the Department of Social and Health Services. DSHS’s child support services go by the name DCS, the Division of Child Support. DCS has many other confusing names unfortunately, and you can review a list of them by clicking the link in this sentence.
1. Simplicity. Obtaining an administrative order is supposed to be a simpler process than going to court – so simple most parties don’t find the need to hire an attorney. In fact many attorneys – perhaps most attorneys – will decline to participate in establishing an administrative child support order.
2. Deviation for Children from Other Relationships. An administrative order will almost always decrease child support for a payor who supports children in more than one household. DCS applies a deviation called the Whole Family Formula, which is like a bulk discount. [Tip: If you’re curious about terms like “Whole Family Formula”, it might be helpful to first read Calculating Child Support in Washington: The Basics. It teaches the concepts and terms this article expands upon.]
By contrast, a court-issued order is about half as likely to contain a deviation for children from other relationships.
If you’re a payor who supports children from a different relationship (including stepchildren who currently live with you), an administrative order is probably better for you than a court order. If you’re the child support recipient, you’d probably prefer that the case proceed through court.
3. No Residential Credit. Administrative orders are highly unlikely to contain a residential credit. A residential credit is another form of downward deviation from the standard child support calculation. This type of deviation applies when the child(ren) live with the payor a substantial percentage of the time, often defined as more than 90 days and overnights per year. According to a 2018 study, residential credits comprise only 5% of the deviations in administrative orders but 47% of all deviations in court child support orders. In other words, courts are far more likely to award a residential credit than are DCS and administrative-law judges.
If you’re a would-be payor who has the child(ren) much of the time, a court-issued child support order might benefit you. If you’re the child support recipient in this scenario, you’d prefer an administrative proceeding.
4. No Arvey Split. An Arvey Split potentially applies when each parent has primary care (custody) of one of the children the parties have in common. The term “Arvey Split” comes from the Arvey family’s famous child support case, where each parent had custody of one of the children. Consider the following example that might lead to an Arvey Split. The parties have two children in common, a daughter and son. The daughter is more closely bonded to the mother and the son to the father. If the parties agree to it, the court could award the mother primary care of the daughter and the father primary care of the son. Each party would have one child. Normally whoever has the majority of the time with the children would receive a standard transfer calculation of child support, but that would seem unfair in this situation. Both parties essentially have the children half the time. A more equitable means of resolving this problem is to create two child support worksheets – one for the father and one for the mother – then offset their obligations. This usually results in a small child support payment by the higher earning party to the lower earning party.
Administrative orders cannot contain an Arvey split; court-issued orders can.
If you’re the higher earning party and expect the other side to agree to split up the children, you would prefer a court-issued child support order.
5. Work Expectations. In some limited circumstances, an administrative order will excuse a TANF recipient from working even if he or she has the physical and mental ability to earn money. Generally speaking, court-issued child support orders do not excuse a person from working unless he or she is physically or mentally unable. For example, courts have imputed income to parents who stop working to return to college. “Imputed” means the court treated the party has having the income he or she would make if the person got a job.
If you are on TANF and are searching for work or undergoing job retraining, you might prefer an administrative child support order.
6. No Post-Secondary Support or Taxes. Court-issued child support orders address more topics than administrative orders. Importantly, court-issued child support orders can a) award post-secondary support (support for adult-age children) and b) divide tax credits and deductions associated with having children. Administrative orders do not contain provisions on these points.
Absent court-ordered post-secondary support, the child support payor has no obligation to support adult-age children, such as a 19-year-old child who gets into college. For this reason, a child-support payor might not want a court-issued child support order. On the other hand, absent a court-issued order to divide the child tax credits/deductions, the primary care parent has no obligation to share any of the child-related tax benefits with the child support payor. Normally a court-issued child support order would divide the tax benefits evenly between the parties, making a court-issued order preferable to the payor. In other words, these two considerations – post-secondary support and tax benefits – tend to balance each other out. Not always though. You might want to run the calculations.
Notably, Washington’s divorce decrees have begun addressing post-secondary support and child-tax benefits if the parties have an administrative child support order. Doing so obviates this set of distinctions between administrative orders and court-issued child support in divorces. The divorce court will address post-secondary support and child-tax benefits one way or another.
7. Court Orders Govern Over Administrative Orders. This means a party can request an administrative order first, then if it doesn’t go well, petition the local superior court for a child support order. The court proceeding might not result in any change though. Courts often give deference to the decisions of their administrative counterparts.
8. Employment Security Income Records. It can be easier to accurately determine a party’s income in an administrative proceeding. DCS has access to Washington’s Employment Security income records, which have employee earnings for every lawfully reported worker in the state.
A skilled litigant can obtain even more income related-records through a court proceeding, but it requires an understanding of the process and sometimes many months of discovery. Discovery is the process of forcing people to provide you with information and records.
9. No Interest on Arrearages. DCS will not calculate interest owed on back support. This is relevant if a) you have an administrative order or b) you have a court-issued child support order and DCS’s support registry acts as the payment intermediary. If a court calculates arrearages, on the other hand, it will usually include interest at 12% per year. That can be a big difference if the payor falls behind for several years.
10. No Parenting Plan. DCS will help you establish an administrative child support order but not a parenting plan or custody order. No parenting plan is needed or even available in an administrative proceeding. Courts generally require that a party establish a parenting plan or custody order as part of a request for child support.
11. Paternity. In an administrative proceeding, DCS will help determine paternity at the same time as establishing a support obligation. A court process typically requires the parties to figure out how to establish paternity themselves.
12. Annual Review. DCS will often perform an annual review of administrative orders, including arrearages owed and the amount of support. Parties have to initiate the review of court-issued child support orders, and it typically occurs much less frequently.
That’s it! We hope this was helpful. Our firm believes in making quality legal information available for free online. For more, click the resources tab in the upper right corner or any page of our website. Or call us at 866-631-0028 to speak with one of our knowledgeable divorce and family law attorneys.
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