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How to Modify Child Support in Washington State

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by Samuel K. DarlingBellevue Family Law Attorney

How do you modify child support in Washington State? Generally you initiate the case by completing the self-explanatory forms located on the Washington State Court Forms website, filing them with the local superior court clerk’s office, paying the filing fee set by the county, and serving the documents on the opposing party. The method of finalizing the modification proceeding varies from county to county.

The remainder of this article provides additional detail. Notably, this article does not address changing a temporary order (an order issued while a case is pending), “adjusting” an order (making a small change rather than a large one), or changing child support at the same time as modifying a parenting plan. We have separate articles on those topics.

Similarly, this article does not address how to modify an administrative child support order, which is an order issued by DSHS/DCS or an administrative law judge rather than a superior court judge. If you have an administrative law order, contact your support enforcement officer or DSHS/DCS for help changing it.

Table of Contents:
I. Should You Modify Child Support?
1. If DSHS Will Do It For You
2. If the Remaining Child(ren) Will Age Out Soon
3. If Adjustment Might Be a Better Option
II. Where Should You File the Petition for Modification?
1. Which State or Country?
2. Which County?
3. How Do You Register a Child Support Order from Outside Washington?
III. Process of Modifying a Court-Issued Child Support Order
1. Documents that Start the Modification Process
2. What Need If Want Temporary Child Support
3. Filing & Serving the Documents
4. Hearing on Temporary Order | Default
5. Discovery
6. Finalizing the Case
7. Appeal to Judge

Practice tip: take action promptly if you want to change your child support order. If you rest on your rights, you often lose them. For example, a petition for modification cannot address time periods prior to your petition for modification. That means the longer you wait to file your petition, the less relief the court can grant you.

Similarly, you lose your right to request post-secondary support if you act slowly. Post-secondary support means extending support to cover a time period after high school, such as if the child gets into college. The petition requesting it must be properly filed before the child ages out of your current child support order. Normally a parent petitions for post-secondary support between the time the child gets into college and graduates high school. If you wait to petition until after your child graduates from high school, it’s usually too late. For more, see our article explaining post-secondary support for college.

I. Should I Modify Child Support?

To modify child support you must prove a relevant change in circumstances. That change must occur after entry of your current child support order. And the change must be substantial. Typical examples include a) a change in income for one or both parties, b) the payor becoming financially responsible for children from other relationships (reason to reduce child support by deviation), or c) a child getting into college or becoming mentally disabled (reason for post-secondary support).

If you can prove a qualifying change in circumstances, you nonetheless might NOT want to modify child support under the following circumstances.

1. If DSHS/DCS Will Do it For You. Often DSHS/DCS will help modify a court-issued child support order if the order is at least three years old and the anticipated change in support would be substantial as determined by the Washington Administrative Code. You do not need to parse these criteria. Simply submit a request for DSHS/DCS to change your order, and the agency will evaluate it.

Some people do not want DSHS/DCS to help change their court-issued child support order. This is usually because the party wants greater control to argue the case. DSHS/DCS does not represent either party, will not take instruction from the person who asked for the modification, and otherwise attempts to remain neutral rather than zealously fighting for a position.

2. If the Remaining Child(ren) Will Age Out Soon. Often it isn’t worthwhile to change child support if the obligation is about to end anyway. Consider this typical example. The parties have two children, ages eighteen and nineteen. The nineteen-year-old recently graduated high school and aged out of the child support order. The child support recipient could modify child support and increase his or her support for the remaining child by a small amount. But that small amount probably would not be worth the cost and/or hassle of modifying the child support order.

If you would like to run the numbers for your situation, we have a separate article on calculating child support and the effect different factors have. It includes a link to a child support calculator.

3. If Adjustment Might Be a Better Option. An adjustment is a preferable means of making simple changes, such as updating your current child support calculations by plugging in the parties’ new incomes. Click here for a full description of the differences between an adjustment and modification and an explanation of how to perform an adjustment.

II. Where Should You File the Petition for Modification?

1. Which State or Country Should A Child Support Modification Be Filed In? Generally a child support modification should be filed in the state or country that entered the prior child support order so long as the child or either parent still lives there. For example, if Washington entered the current child support order, the state’s courts would have “exclusive continuing jurisdiction” over the order so long as either of the parents or the child lives in Washington.

If the parties and child(ren) have all stopped residing in the state or country that issued the current child support order, the child support modification can be filed in Washington if and only if Washington has sufficient connection to each of the parties. Sufficient connection for this jurisdictional analysis usually means a) service of the petition upon the party while he or she is in Washington, b) the party lives or lived in Washington, c) the party consents to Washington having jurisdiction, or d) the party conceived the child(ren) in Washington.

Even if none of the involved people still live in Washington, the parties can agree to Washington maintaining jurisdiction to modify the order.

2. Which County Should A Child Support Modification Be Filed In? Assuming Washington is the appropriate state for the modification proceeding, the requesting party can file the petition for modification in the superior court of the county a) that entered the current child support order, b) where the child(ren) live, or c) where the primary care parent lives.

3. How Do You Register a Child Support Order from Outside Washington? To modify a support order from another state or country, you would need to “register” it in Washington. Registration means providing the order to DSHS. Alternately, Washington case law suggests you can write the letter to the relevant superior court clerk and hand it to the clerk’s office when you file your petition to modify child support.

But registering the order with the court rather than DSHS creates additional complexities, such as the need to keep the payor’s social security number out of the publicly viewable portion of the court file. People inexperienced with the process should register through DSHS rather than the court.

RCW 26.21A.505 states the requirements for the registration letter. In summary, it says to write a simple letter to DSHS asking the agency to “register the support order for enforcement”. Attach two copies of the child support order, including one certified copy. You should be able buy the certified copy of the order from the court or administrative agency that issued it. Attach a declaration stating how much you believe is past due on the child support order, the child support recipient’s name, the payor’s name, and, if you know it, the parties’ addresses, the payor’s social security number, and the name and address of the payor’s employer. Provide copies of the letter and attachments to the other party(ies). The law doesn’t specify how you should send the copies to the other party(ies), so err on the side of caution. Send the documents by personal service.

III. Process of Modifying a Court-Issued Child Support Order.

If you elect to file your own petition for modification (as opposed to asking DSHS for help), you will need to understand how child support works. We have a separate article on Calculating Child Support: The Basics.

1. Documents that Start the Modification Process. Self-explanatory templates are available on the Washington Court Forms Website under Family Law > Child Support > Petition to Modify Child Support. The party seeking modification will need to complete:

  • a Summons,
  • a Petition for Modification,
  • a Confidential Information Form (plus the attachment if your case involves enough people that you run out of space),
  • Child Support Schedule Worksheets,
  • a Financial Declaration,
  • a Sealed Financial Source Documents Cover Sheet (attach proof of your income, which the court will call your “Sealed Financial Source Documents”), and
  • Proof of Service (proof of service by mail, personal service, or acceptance of service – see our article on service for a complete explanation of the options for serving documents).

The Sealed Financial Source Documents typically consist of your last two years’ tax returns, last two years’ W-2s, and paystubs for the current calendar year. Sealing them means to put a Sealed Financial Source Documents Cover Sheet on them as the top page. This ensures the court will place them in a special file the public can’t read.

2. Additional Documents You Need If You Want a Temporary Child Support Order (Skip This Section If You Know You Don’t Want Temporary Orders). Given that child support modification proceedings usually take three to six months, parties often need or want a temporary modified child support order that stays in place until the process ends.

Either party can file a motion for a temporary order at any time during the modification proceeding, but the party petitioning for modification commonly does it at the beginning of the case. The first person to file the motion for temporary order gains a procedural advantage over the party responding to the motion.

We have a separate article on how to file a motion. To request a temporary modified child support order, follow the instructions in that article but use the documents named here. In additional to the documents already mentioned, prepare a Motion for a Temporary Family Law Order and a proposed Child Support Order (click here for an article on how to complete a Child Support Order). You can download self-explanatory templates from the Washington’s Court Forms Website under Family Law > Child Support > Temporary Family Law Order.

You should also prepare a declaration explaining why the court should grant your motion. Click here for an article on writing declarations in support of a motion.

Next you should complete a Calendar Note or Hearing Notice setting the hearing location, date, and time. Typically you can download this form from the county superior court’s website. Larger counties have calendar notes specifically for domestic or family law cases; make sure you use the correct calendar note for your case type. If you’re confused about the county’s local rules and calendar note, make sure to speak briefly with a local attorney, LLLT, or family law facilitator. Facilitators are the least expensive option at $10 per session. They can only answer basic questions, but that should be enough.

3. Filing & Serving the Documents. The previously mentioned article on how to file a motion explains the process of filing and service, so you might have read this information already. The instructions are nonetheless repeated here for your convenience. If you have already completed this step, skip to step III(4), below.

Make at least three copies of all your documents, for a total of at least four sets including originals.

A. Originals for the Court File. File the originals of the above-mentioned documents with the clerk’s office of the county where you are petitioning. You will also need to pay a filing fee, often $56 or $240.

B. Copies for the Opposing Party. Have copies of all the documents served on the other party(ies). The exception is the Confidential Information Form, which only needs to be filed with the court.

We have a separate article on how to serve documents.

C. Copies for the State Prosecutor’s Office. If any party to the case receives state financial assistance, you should serve the state. Serving the state means giving the county prosecutor’s office copies of all documents you served on the opposing party. This enables the state to participate in the formulation of the child support order.

D. Working Copies (If Filing a Motion for a Temporary Order). If requesting temporary orders, provide copies of the following documents as working copies for the judge or commissioner deciding the motion: the calendar note, motion for a temporary family law order, declaration(s) in support of the motion, petition for modification, child support schedule worksheets, sealed financial source documents with cover sheet, financial declaration, and proposed child support order. Usually there will be a separate location in the courthouse for dropping off working copies.

E. Copies for Yourself. Keep copies of all documents for yourself.

4. Shortly After Service: Hearing on Temporary Orders | Default.

A. Temporary Order Hearing. If you are filing a motion for temporary orders, you have probably already read our firm’s article on how to file a motion and know about the hearing procedure. If not, refer back to the article by clicking the link in the preceding sentence. Normally the hearing on temporary orders takes place about two to three weeks after the requesting party served his or her motion (and petition for modification).

B. Default. The responding party usually has 20 days to respond to the petition (60 days if served outside Washington) by submitting a Response to Petition. Failing to respond on time can lead to a default. Default, in turn, means the responding party cannot participate in the case. Our firm has a separate article on default.

5. Discovery. One or both parties sometimes initiate discovery. Discovery is the process of obtaining information and documents relevant to the case. Washington litigants have many discovery devices at their disposal, meaning ways of getting information. The most common is a thick packet of requests called interrogatories and requests for production. The recipient normally has 30 days to comply by providing the requested information.

Practice tip: propounding discovery might or might not be a good idea in your situation. If you have all the information you need, propounding discovery could increase the difficulty of your case without any significant benefit. Moreover, if you propound a set of interrogatories and requests for production on the other side, they often do the same to you. Responding to interrogatories and requests for production takes days of nonstop work.

6. Finalizing the Case. The next steps in the process vary a great deal from county to county, unfortunately. You will probably need to speak with a family law facilitator at the local county courthouse. The cost is usually $10 per session.

The following are how child support modifications proceed to final orders in Washington’s three largest counties, King, Pierce, and Snohomish.

A. King County. In King County, parties proceed directly to trial on the date set on the automatically issued scheduling order. You can download the county’s PDF description of the child support modification process from the county website’s family law instructions page. Normally the trial is “by affidavits”, meaning the parties submit all their facts to the court in advance via affidavits or declarations (preferably declarations, which have largely replaced affidavits). See our firm’s article on how to write a winning declaration. Alternatively a party can request permission to present live testimony, but it would be rare.

B. Pierce County. In Pierce County modifications are finalized by motion, almost exactly as if one of the parties were requesting a temporary child support order. See above for the process of filing a motion for a temporary modified child support order. The only differences:

  • Make sure your motion requests a final order rather than a temporary one.
  • Your materials should include a proposed Final Order and Findings on Petition to Modify, available on the Washington Court Form’s Website under Family Law > Child Support > Petition to Modify Child Support.

C. Snohomish County. In Snohomish County, child support modifications are finalized by arbitration. In this context an arbitration is essentially an informal trial where an unbiased attorneys acts as the judge and decides the case’s outcome. One of the parties must request arbitration by completing and submitting the county’s Initial Statement of Arbitrability form, available on the county?s court forms webpage. The court will then send the parties forms regarding selection of an arbitrator, notice of the selected arbitrator, and notice of the arbitration date and location. Given that child support modification arbitrations in Snohomish County function as informal trials, anyone participating in this process should understand trial procedures. See our firm’s article on How Trial Works.

There are a few differences however. Most notably:

  • In place of trial briefs, each party submits a pre-arbitration statement of proof at least two weeks in advance; and
  • Each party has the option of submitting evidentiary documents in advance through Superior Court Civil Arbitration Rule 5.3(d) rather than through ER 904. This will make more sense if you’ve read the previously mentioned article on How Trial Works. As that article mentions, ER 904 requires action at least 30 days in advance; the arbitration rule only requires two weeks.

Click here for an example pre-arbitration statement of proof and SCCAR 5.3(d) notice (sometimes called a SCSCCAR 5.3 Notice in Snohomish County). Click here to locate the Superior Court Civil Arbitration Rules, listed under the acronym SCCAR.

The arbitration will result in an Arbitration Award rather than final orders. The prevailing party will then need to draft final orders and file a motion to have a judge or commissioner sign them into effect. The final orders should consist of a Child Support Order, Child Support Worksheets, and a Final Order and Findings on Petition to Modify. You can find templates for the forms on the Washington Court Form?s Website under Family Law > Child Support > Petition to Modify Child Support.

7. Appeal to Judge. If your final orders were decided by a commissioner or arbitrator, you have the right to appeal the decision to a judge de novo. This appeal process is called “revision” if you are contesting a commissioner’s decision rather than an arbitrator’s. De novo means the judge will decide the case without giving any deference to the decision of the arbitrator or commissioner. The exact process or requesting de novo review varies from county to county. Speak with a family law facilitator. Do not wait long, however. You generally have a maximum of ten or twenty days to file the revision or appeal.

That’s it! Hopefully this was helpful. Our firm believes in making quality information available for free online. For more, click the resources tab in the upper right corner. From all of us at Genesis, we wish you the best with your family law matter!

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