This article explains the basics of calculating child support in Washington State. The government has written a more formal guide to calculating child support. You can find it on the Washington Court Forms Website under Family Law > [case-type] > Washington State Child Support Schedule. But many readers find it overwhelming. Our law firm recommends reading our basic guide first, and then if you want more information, the government’s guide.
There are two authorities who issue child support orders in Washington: 1) state courts and 2) the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). This article focuses on court-ordered child support, though the two authorities calculate child support in nearly identical ways.
We have a separate article with an example child support order and additional drafting guidance. We also have an article on the few differences between DSHS’s administrative child support orders and court-issued child support orders.
1) The Basic Concepts. Good news: Washington has simplified child support calculations by adopting a standardized child support formula. Plug information into an equation, and it tells you the presumptive child support amount. Even better news: the state has developed a free online child support calculator that can do the math for you. But do not use the calculator yet – read the rest of this article so you understand how to use the calculator properly. The article also explains when the court can use its discretion to award an amount higher or lower than the standard calculation.
Child support disputes tend to center around the incomes each party plugs into the child support calculator. The child support amount goes up 1) as payor’s net income increases and 2) as the recipient’s net income decreases.
Most types of income should be included, such as overtime, wages from a second job, and bonuses. But there are nonetheless types of income that should be excluded, such as non-recurring income (one-time gifts, prizes, and bonuses). You can find a list of all the excludable types of income by clicking the link in this sentence.
State law also instructs courts to ‘impute’ a party with income if he or she is voluntarily under-employed. Imputing income means to plug into the formula the income the person could earn if he or she tried to become fully employed. For example, a party should be imputed at his or her former income if he or she works fewer hours to avoid paying child support. As might come as a surprise, Washington’s case law says to impute a party who quits a job to get a school degree, as a well as to impute a parent who stays home to care for the parties’ children.
After determining the parties’ incomes and plugging them into the child support calculator, Washington law requires ‘worksheets’ showing the math. The online calculator automatically generates these worksheets, which can be printed.
Line 17 of the worksheets contains the ‘standard transfer payment’ for each parent. The standard transfer payment is what the formula indicates the non-primary care parent (non-custodial parent) should normally pay the primary care parent (custodial parent) on a monthly basis. Even though the worksheets list standard transfer amounts for both parents, only the non-primary care parent pays.
Practice Tip 1.1: When You Are Not Sure About the Other Side’s Income. If you do not know the other side’s income, use the highest income you think is possible when running your proposed figures for your court submissions. For example, if you think the other party earns between $5,000 and $10,000 per month, type $10,000 per month into the child support calculator. Guessing high motivates the other party to prove you wrong by supplying proof of his or her actual income to the court. The court will then use the other side’s actual income.]
2) Extending the Economic Table. Washington’s child support formula only extends to a combined monthly income of $12,000 for the parties. The result is that the standard transfer payment for higher earning parents does not rise much after their combined incomes reach this threshold. This barrier is sometimes called the ‘maximum presumptive amount of child support’.
If you are a primary care parent affected by this maximum, you can argue for an extrapolated economic table. An extrapolated economic table extends beyond $12,000 total income, allowing for higher child support figures. Unfortunately, you might need an attorney to argue for extrapolation. It usually requires software only accessible to legal professionals, such as SupportCalc.
3) Deviations. Though courts usually set child support at the standard transfer amount, they occasionally adopt different figures. Adopting a figure that differs from the standard transfer amount is called ‘deviating’. About 30% of child support orders deviate from the presumptive amount. Washington’s child support statute essentially lists all the possible reasons for deviations; the court generally will not deviate unless it is for one of the listed reasons. The most important deviations are:
- Substantial Visitation (Residential Credit). Child support can deviate downward if the non-primary care parent has substantial residential time with the child(ren). Substantial residential time usually means more than 90 overnights with the child(ren) each year, and the deviation can nearly eliminate child support for parents who have relatively equal amounts of residential time. This is the primary basis for court-ordered deviation according to a 2018 study (47% of all deviations ordered). There is no exact formula for calculating a residential credit. Attorneys often argue it should be calculated various ways, but those methods are disputed (and difficult to apply unless you have specialized attorney software). The law allows judges to deviate however much or little they think is appropriate based upon the parties’ relative finances. Notably, this deviation only applies if the primary care parent will still have adequate funds to support his or her household. By definition a primary care parent would not have sufficient funds if he or she already receives financial assistance from the state (TANF).
- Other Children. Child support can deviate downward if the non-primary care parent has additional children from different relationships. This is the second largest basis for deviation (42% of all deviations ordered). To understand this deviation, it is helpful to know more about the standard transfer calculation. The standard transfer calculation increases when the parties have more children in common but by less for each additional child. In essence, the standard transfer calculation provides a bulk discount when the parties have more kids together. For example, child support might be $500 per child if the parties have 2 children ($500 + $500 = $1,000 total) but only $400 per child if the parties have 3 children ($400 + $400 + $400 = $1,200). By discretionary deviation, a judge can provide this same sort of bulk discount if the payor has children who are not part of the case. Normally it applies when the non-primary care parent has biological children from another relationship. But it can also apply when the non-primary care parent has stepchildren from a new marriage and is not separated from the current spouse. When deciding whether to grant this deviation, judges usually consider the parties’ relative financial positions. That means the court looks at each party’s income and expenses and decides whether it is better to allocate money to one family or the other. If the court elects to deviate on this basis, it often applies the ‘whole family formula’. Most people find the math for the whole family formula intimidating unless they have special attorney software. Like the other deviations mentioned above, the court does not need to apply an exact calculation. Ultimately the deviation is however much or little the judge thinks is appropriate.
- Very Little Visitation. Child support can deviate upwards if the non-primary care parent has little or no residential time with the child(ren). No visitation often results in an upward deviation of approximately 20%.
4) Extraordinary Expenses. In addition to the monthly transfer payment, certain types of special expenses are divided between the parties based upon their proportionate shares of income. The parties’ proportionate shares of income are listed on line 6 of the worksheets.
These special expenses can be called ‘extraordinary expenses’, though Washington child support statute no longer contains this term. They include:
- Health care costs (premiums and out-of-pocket costs),
- Daycare (usually limited to work-related daycare),
- Transportation costs between the parties homes when the parties live long-distances from each other, and
- Other special child rearing expenses (this is a vague category, but often includes camps and extracurricular activities).
Extraordinary expenses can be listed in the worksheets on lines 10 and 11, in which case the expenses become part of the monthly child support payment. But this is rare. Usually the only extraordinary expense the parties include on the worksheets is the cost of the children’s portion of healthcare premiums, since the premiums tend to be the only extraordinary expense that remains constant month after month.
Put simply, list the cost of the children’s health insurance on line 10 of the worksheets, but leave the rest of lines 10 and 11 blank.
For the other extraordinary expenses, which vary month to month, the parties pay their proportionate shares (the percentages listed on line 6 of the worksheets) if and when the expenses arise. That way these fluctuating extraordinary expenses are not part of the monthly transfer payment. The monthly transfer payment is supposed to be a fixed amount every month.
5) Post-Secondary Support. Post-secondary support essentially means support for adult-age children. Child support ends when the child turns 18 unless a support order extends the obligation. This is important! Judges lose the ability to award post-secondary support unless one of the parties officially requests it from the court before the child turns 18, so do not sleep on your rights.
Child support orders almost always extend support until the child graduates high school so long as the child is passing most of his or her classes. In that instance, the court calculates child support the same as if the child were younger than 18.
The court can also award post secondary support for highly dependent special-needs children or children attending college. In those cases the normal child support calculations mentioned above are only advisory, and the judge has even more flexibility in fashioning an award. We have a separate article specifically on this subject of post-secondary support for college.
To locate our other free legal articles – such as Types & Examples of Parenting Plans or Example Child Support Order – visit our website’s resources section by clicking the link in the upper right of any page. Or call our firm at 866-631-0028 to speak with one of our Washington family law attorneys.
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