Washington law requires that parents financially support their children. The primary tool used in divorce to ensure that both parents make financial contributions is child support. The financial support of children must be addressed in every divorce involving a child.
Typically, child support has two components: (a) a periodic (usually monthly) “transfer payment” from one parent to another, and (b) a sharing of certain expenses.
In Washington, if a court determines child support, the law provides that a presumed child support transfer payment and percentage sharing is driven by the net incomes of the parents. The presumed (but not automatic) transfer payment and percentages are determined from completing child support worksheets.
The child support worksheets are only a supporting document; the amounts are based on the premise on that children should be supported proportional to the net incomes of the parents. The percentages are then applied to a look-up table that is based on statewide average expenses. The results are therefore arbitrary: the premise may be inappropriate, and the amount in the look–up table will almost always be wrong for your particular circumstances.
The look-up table ignores the actual cost of raising your children, different costs of living across the state, the residential schedule, the possible desirability of maintaining neighborhood stability for children, and other unique circumstances. Outside of the monthly transfer amount, certain expenses are expected to be shared. Examples include work-related child care, long-distance transportation, medical insurance premiums, uninsured medical expenses, education expenses, and similar expenses.
Fortunately, the child support worksheets are not binding, and the amounts and percentages can (and frequently do) differ from may be in the worksheets to make sure children are properly supported.
In court, there are four steps to determine child support:
1. Compute the total income of the parents;
2. Determine the presumptive child support level from the economic table (the amount listed on the child support worksheets);
3. Decide whether to “deviate” from the presumptive transfer payment and percentage allocations, based on individual factors; and
4. Allocate the child support obligation.
Step #3 above is key. Deviating from the presumed amount of child support requires a legally-supportable basis. Real-world considerations can often form that basis.
In mediated and collaborative divorce matters, child support is negotiated. As a result, you can better tailor support to better match the actual child-rearing expenses in each household, and to better consider how you allocate your co-parenting tasks. The planning for that type of child support agreement takes some work, but the results can be well worth it.
Once established, the law allows child support to be prospectively modified whenever there is a substantial change of circumstances that support a change. Child support can als0 be adjusted periodically just because there has been a change of incomes or age brackets for children on the look-up table. In a court proceeding, child support cannot be retroactively modified. (In other words, if you lose your job for reasons beyond your control and you are unable to reach agreement, you should consider immediately bring a proceeding to modify your child support and not wait.) Through agreements, there may be other possibilities.