What does “imputing income” mean in a Washington State divorce or family law matter? It means treating a party as having income he or she does not have. The legal system imputes voluntarily unemployed or underemployed parties at the amounts they reasonably could make.
Table of Contents:
1. For What Calculations Does Imputation Apply?
2. Is Everyone Who Works Less than Fulltime Imputed?
3. Can a Party Be Imputed Even If He/She Works Fulltime?
4. Can a Party Be Imputed If He/She Takes a Lower Paying Fulltime Job?
5. Should a Party Be Imputed If He/She Makes Less than Similarly Educated Individuals?
6. Is a Party Who Hides Income Imputed?
7. How Is Imputed Income Calculated?
1. For What Calculations Does Imputation Apply? The imputation rules always apply when calculating child support. In fact, Washington’s legislature and courts adopted the state’s imputation laws and other income rules specifically for child support calculations.
Courts sometimes apply these child support income rules by analogy to other types of family law income calculations. In fact, courts and parties use the same financial declaration form to calculate a parties’ income under almost ALL circumstances, and that financial declaration form derives from the child support statute. (You can find the financial declaration template on the Washington Court Forms Website under Family Law > Divorce > Divorce (Dissolution).)
More specifically, courts often choose to apply imputation rules when determining income for purposes of spousal maintenance calculations, sometimes called alimony. Less often courts elect to apply the child support imputation rules when determining a need-based award of attorney fees, the division of a Guardian ad Litem’s fees, or a disproportionate award of the parties’ property. Imputation is within the court’s discretion in these situations – the jurist can do what seems fair.
2. Is Everyone Who Works Less than Fulltime Imputed? No. Disability and genuine retirement can be exceptions. And courts sometimes give a person time to “get back on his or her feet” before imputing the party with income.
Nearly everyone else is imputed if he or she fails to work fulltime. These rules tend to be harsher than most people expect. For example, parties were imputed at their fulltime wages when they went back to school or stayed home to care for children. Our firm’s article on Refusing to Work addresses this question in much more detail and explains how the court handles various scenarios.
Notably, Washington’s child support imputation statute creates rare exceptions for a party currently enrolled in high school, as well as for a party who stops working to comply with a dependency court’s reunification order.
Also of note, being in jail or prison does not constitute voluntary unemployment except in certain circumstances, such as if the party is incarcerated a) for failure to pay support or b) intentionally to reduce his or her income.
3. Can A Party Be Imputed If He/She Works Fulltime? Yes, if he or she historically worked more than fulltime, such as side jobs. According to RCW 26.19.071(6), the question in that situation would probably be whether the party reduced his or her income for a good faith purpose (such as if the stress was causing heart problems) or a bad faith purpose (to intentionally lower his or her income for the family law proceeding). For example, when determining child support and maintenance a court imputed a father despite spotty fulltime employment, because he quit his side jobs immediately prior to the case.
4. Can a Party Be Imputed If He/She Takes a Lower Paying Fulltime Job? Yes, though it depends on why he or she has taken a lower paying fulltime job. For example, a party should not be imputed at previous earnings from a higher income job if he or she did not leave the job for bad faith purposes and can no longer obtain a comparable position.
5. Should a Party Be Imputed If He/She Makes Less than Similarly Educated Individuals? Possibly, though not if he or she has a history of working the lower paying job prior to the proceeding and there is no evidence of bad faith (intentionally decreasing income to gain an advantage in the proceeding).
6. Is a Party Who Hides Income Imputed? Yes, assuming it would be fair to the innocent spouse. For example, it was fair to impute a party where he alleged minimum wage earnings but hid financial information. It was fair because the imputed amount was significantly higher than the alleged amount. It would not make sense to impute a deceitful party if the imputation would better his or her position in court.
7. How Is Imputed Income Calculated? A Washington Statute states how to calculate imputed income. The statute lists various ways and instructs readers to use the first method applicable, starting with the top. Here are the methods:
a. Fulltime at Current Rate. The most favored method is to set the party’s income at what he or she would make at his or current job if he or she worked fulltime. Fulltime generally means 40 hours per week.
For example, a party earning $30 per hour would be imputed at $5,200 per month ($30 x 40 hrs x 52 wks / 12 mos = $5,200 per mo). The party can be imputed at more than 40 hours he or she worked more prior to becoming voluntarily under-employed. Conversely, a party can be imputed at less than 40 hours if people in the industry typically work less, such as many categories of nurses.
If you intend to argue for a weekly amount different from 40 hours, you will need to prove your alleged basis to the court. Usually you do this by providing documents and testimony from people with knowledge regarding the weekly hours. That testimony takes the form of declarations and sealed financial documents (for motions hearings) or witnesses and exhibits (for trials).
This first method of calculating imputed income often is not applicable. For instance, it is inapplicable if the party is not working, is hiding income information, or has intentionally taken a lower paying job for an inexcusable reason, such as to gain an advantage in court. If that is the case, look to the next imputation method, and then the next, until you find one that fits.
b. Fulltime at Historical Rate of Pay. The second basis for imputation is fulltime at the party’s historical rate of pay. The math is the same as described above, though you would use a past rate rather than current pay. Again, this method does not work in some scenarios, such as if the party has not worked in a long time (or ever) or if no reliable pay information is available, such as if the party is hiding it.
c. Fulltime at the Minimum Wage Where the Party Lives. This third method applies when the party has a recent history of minimum wage work or has no recent or significant earnings history. It should not apply where a party is hiding his or her income or perhaps where the party is refusing to find work after recently graduating from college or otherwise gaining the ability to earn a higher wage. Notably, courts usually set fulltime at 32 hours rather than 40 if i) the person recently came off certain types of government assistance listed in RCW 26.19.071(6)(a)(iv), ii) was recently incarcerated, or iii) is a recent high school graduate. The 32 hour presumption is rebuttable with proof the person could work more hours if he or she tried.
d. Wage/Age Table. If none of the other methods apply, impute the party based on the wage/age table printed on page 7 of the state’s child support instruction pamphlet. You can find the pamphlet on the Washington Court Forms Website under Family Law > Divorce > Divorce (Dissolution) > Washington State Child Support Schedule – definitions, standards, etc. The table is captioned “Approximate Median Net Monthly Income” and states how much men and women make on average in various age ranges. Keep in mind, the table provides net incomes rather than gross. That means you should not deduct any taxes when using these figures, because they are already “after tax” amounts.
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