As parents starting a divorce in Washington, your children are most likely your number one concern.
And they should be.
You love your kids and want the world for them.
So now that you're ending your marriage, how will you ensure they get the financial support needed to minimize the effect your divorce will have on them?
That’s where child support in Washington State comes in.
But the Washington state Child Support calculator has a number of complexities and limitations, and coming to agreement may be harder than you think.
Washington state Child Support: What is the Purpose?
In Washington state, child support guidelines have two purposes:
To ensure that the monthly child support obligation agreed upon by you and your spouse is enough to meet your children’s basic needs; and
To provide a framework for discussion regarding an amount of additional child support, based on each of your incomes, resources, and standard(s) of living, for any further needs your children may have, that are not included in the basic needs above.
But if you're wondering how child support works in Washington, it's important to recognize that this topic is about more than just money.
Many parents think the purpose of WA State child support is to make sure they have enough money after they’re divorced to pay for the items their kids need.
But that’s only partially correct.
Divorce is hard on children. And life as they know it is about to change significantly.
Child support helps alleviate some of the effects your divorce may have on them. And allows your kids’ lifestyles to remain as normal as possible, once you and your spouse have ended your marriage.
Child support shows your kids you still love them, want the best for them, and care about their well-being.
There are a few things you need to know about the challenges of determining child support in Washington State:
While there is a Washington State child support calculator, it can be deviated from, isn’t useful in many situations, and what factors are included and excluded from its calculation can cause significant disagreement between you and your spouse.
Child support in Washington state only considers the income of each parent, and not the amount of time the children spend with each of you.
Due to the global pandemic in 2020, income was impacted for millions of individuals, with economic uncertainty likely to continue well into 2021.
The Washington State child support worksheet does not factor into its calculation the ages of your children;
Due to the Covid-19 Relief Bill, the Child Tax Credit was increased from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child, but only for 2021. Because of this, the amount of child support you agree to pay or receive in 2021 may be different than in 2022, and beyond.
The Child Tax Credit is now refundable for people who have no income, and may now benefit both parties. Whereas in the past, it may have only benefitted one. This complicates conversations around who will claim the children on their tax return for tax year 2021.
Not only has the maximum Child Care Credit been increased in both percentage and dollar amount, but unlike years before, if you don't owe any tax, you can still receive a payment from the government of up to $8,000 depending on expenses incurred.
There is talk of Congress extending these changes and making them permanent. But if you’re getting divorced in 2021, you need to decide now, how (or if) these changes will impact the determination of child support in future years.
This topic has less to do with formulas and guidelines, and more to do with money, negotiation, and doing what’s best for your kids.
There is more than meets the eye on this issue and in most cases, this subject is much too complex for you to try to resolve on your own.
"Most parents think the Washington State child support calculator outputs a specific payment amount to be paid by the parties and that’s that. But the reality is this is just a starting point for negotiations.
You and your spouse may also want to consider the ages of your children, and how much time they spend with each of you. As either of these things may impact the amount of child support you feel is fair.
Plus, there are a lot of expenses not covered by the basic Washington State child support schedule that you and your spouse will need to discuss and decide how they’ll be paid.
That's why the best way to come to a fair agreement and ensure your children get the financial support they need is to work with an experienced mediator like me."
The Washington State child support calculator is only a starting point for negotiations.
Federal law requires all 50 states to have a repeatable way by which to calculate child support. So while every state has a child support calculator, the approaches vary greatly from state-to-state.
Some states use a simple percentage-based formula. You’d simply take a share of the supporting party’s income and pay it to the other party, and you’re done. This is known as a “percentage of obligor’s income” model.
While others have moved to an approach called the “income shares’ model which ideally considers each party's income and earnings, as well as the amount time the children spend with each parent.
And while Washington state does use a version of the income shares model, in our experience, there are shortfalls with WA State child support approach.
Making determining child support in Washington State a very complex undertaking.
The Washington State child support worksheet can be both confusing and incomplete.
Washington uses its own version of the Income Shares Model which allows you and your spouse to use of any of the following factors when determining child support:
Your incomes from employment, interest and dividends, and any businesses you own; and
Any maintenance (aka alimony or spousal support) paid or received; and
Who takes the children as a tax deduction; and
Any mandatory retirement contributions either of you must make; and
Any mandatory union dues either of you must pay; and
How much each of you voluntarily contribute to your 401(k) or other retirement plan; and
Normal business expenses; and
The value of any household assets such as real estate, investments, vehicles and boats, bank accounts and cash, and retirement accounts you may own; and
Any household debts you may have incurred.
There are also several other “add-ons” which may be factored in such as:
The cost of your children’s health insurance premiums; and
Any out of pocket medical expenses such as deductibles, co-pays or other non-covered expenses; and
Any day care expenses; and
Educational costs for the children; and
Any visitation-related travel expenses were one of you to live far from the other.
And if that wasn’t enough to confuse you, there's this:
The parties may also consider any other factors that either of them deem relevant to the determination of child support.
Starting to see why this is a very complex undertaking?
Now assuming you’ve got all of that, and can enter all this data into the Washington State child support calculator, the output may or may not accurately represent what is truly required to raise your kids!
One thing WA State child support does not factor in, is the amount of time the children spend with each of you.
This, in my experience, is one of the most significant challenges parents face when attempting to use the WA State child support calculator.
Think about it. The more time your children spend with you, the more food they’re going to eat. The more utilities they’re going to use. And the more expenses you’re going to incur on their behalf.
And even though since 2011, experts have recommended adding time sharing to calculating child support, Washington State higher-ups have still not agreed to do so.
Maybe 2021 is the year?
Also not considered in the WA St child support calculator is the age of your children. In 2019, the state of Washington decided it was no longer relevant.
And while the state of Washington may feel that way, something tells us if you’re a parent of a teenager, you know their expenses are far greater than their younger siblings.
From the amount of food a teenage boy eats, to the labels on the clothes your teens wear, older children are just flat-out more expensive that younger kids!
Yet the amount of child support you will receive is the same whether they’re 6 or 16.
What you’re starting to see in Washington, just like everywhere else in the United states, is that the amount outputted by the guideline is an estimation of what it costs to raise your children, may or may not accurately represent what it costs to raise them, and can be deviated from if in your case, you and your spouse choose to do so.
And Many of the “Factors” Mentioned Above Are Difficult to Agree On.
For example, according to WA State child support worksheets, the value of any household assets such as real estate, investments, vehicles and boats, bank accounts and cash, and retirement accounts you may own may be factored into the state of Washington calculation support calculation.
So, does that mean you might have to decide how to divide your community property (i.e. your assets and liabilities) to understand who’s going to receive which assets and liabilities, before you determine child support?
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
And, what is an appropriate amount to voluntarily contribute to your 401(k) or other retirement vehicle? Is it fair you max out your 401(k) contributions even if it means your kids don’t have a nice place to live, or enough to eat?
And don’t forget - this guideline was developed by the state of Washington. But the state of Washington doesn’t know the exact amount required to ensure your kids are properly supported so they’ll thrive.
Only you know what it actually costs to raise your kids!
So, while you might think you simply run the guideline and use the number calculated, it’s not even close. The reality is, the number isn’t a hard and fast formula, but rather, a suggestion.
And it’s just a starting point for negotiation.
From there, it’s up to you and your spouse to negotiate an agreement that’s in the best interests of your children and that you both find fair.
Which is not so easy to do.
Especially if you live in Seattle. Child support amounts outputted by the calculator may not be adequate for parents who live in urban areas of King County!
So what does child support cover in Washington State?
So far, you've learned that the Washington State child support schedule attempts to provide divorcing parents with an estimate of a basic amount of financial support needed to raise their kids.
And then it allocates a portion of that amount to each spouse based on a number of factors.
But even when you run the child support calculator, Washington state parents still need to decide which expenses should be included, and how they’re going to handle those that aren’t.
As parents, I'm sure you would agree that you have to provide at least a basic level of support to your children. Food on the table, a safe place for them to live, and clothes for them to go to school in.
But after that, what does child support cover in Washington State is the subject of much debate.
First is the issue with the Washington State child support calculator itself.
Previously, we talked about how any out of pocket medical expenses such as deductibles, co-pays or other non-covered expenses, was one of the categories listed on the WA State child support worksheets.
But should these really be included?
Let’s look at the story of 5 year-old Jake. Jake is an active little boy who loves to swim.
His mom swears he’s part fish!
But poor Jake is highly susceptible to ear infections and sinus infections. Resulting in frequent trips to the doctor, lots of antibiotics, and a significant number of co-pays made to both Dr. Johnson, and Bartell Drugs.
At first, it seems like including out of pocket medical expenses in the WA State child support amount for Jake makes sense. But over time, something happens, and Jake grows out of them.
No more doctor visits or prescriptions to pay for!
But back when you got divorced, Jake’s child support award included funds for deductibles, co-pays and other non-covered expenses. So, in theory, the WA State child support amount you both agreed on for Jake is too high.
So now you must open old wounds and attempt to renegotiate the amount.
Then, there’s the matter of the items that were not covered in the State of Washington child support calculation.
All-Star Baseball camp;
College site visits;
And the list goes on and on…
In mediation, we commonly refer to these as "extraordinary" expenses and they are not typically included in the basic child support amount.
These items must be discussed and negotiated separately to ensure your children get the financial support they need and deserve. Because let’s face it, the items listed above tend to be among the most expensive of all!
Starting to see why answering the question, “How much is child support in Washington State” is not as simple as using some free calculator you may have found on the Internet?
There are other issues to be decided regarding Washington State child support.
In addition to the basic and extraordinary costs associated with raising your children, you and your spouse will also need to discuss and come to agreement on:
Who gets to take the child tax credit;
Who will pay for the children’s health insurance;
Whether you have enough life insurance to cover the children’s expenses now and when they go off to college;
How college tuition costs will be paid for;
The duration child support in Washington is paid (because for some children, it may extend beyond age 18)
Making the list of what is not easily resolved, longer and longer.
The Washington State child support worksheets aren’t clear on how to handle all situations.
Back when I was a kid, it was easy to figure out how much my parents got paid.
Mom worked 20 hours a week in a jewelry store and was paid hourly. And Dad was a construction supervisor, and had a flat-salary. There were no bonuses, restricted stock units, stock options, or ownership shares in their companies.
Maybe dad got a Christmas ham, or bottle of booze as a thank you come year end, but that was that.
Today, compensation has gotten far more complex.
Bonuses, stock options, RSU’s, commissions, deferred compensation - you name it – can all play a significant role in how someone earns a living. And these types of financial incentives usually aren’t paid out on a regular basis.
And in some years, not at all.
If you or your spouse receives one (or more) of these “exotic” compensation methods, the amount you receive may far exceed the amount you get through your basic salary amount. So, predicting what each of your earns for the purposes of determining child support can be difficult.
Add to that more and more people in the Seattle and King County area work for high-tech startups, and are being compensated with ownership shares, and you’ve got some real challenges in determining how much is child support in Washington State.
And who’s counting, anyway?
Prior to your decision to divorce, I’m sure you and your spouse did everything you could to give your kids the life they deserved. The was no pre-agreed upon amount you were going to spend every month. And there certainly wasn’t any cap.
They asked for something, and you provided it to them.
No questions asked.
But now that your divorcing, that’s exactly what the Washington State child support guidelines are asking you to do.
In order to get a divorce in the state of Washington, you and your spouse must agree on a monthly amount of financial support you’ll each provide to your children.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “Wait, didn’t you say our children were entitled to share in our current incomes? What if we collectively make more than the cap? Then what do we do?”
It’s been my experience that parents typically have very different spending styles when it comes to their children.
Leaving you to try and answer the question, “How much child support is enough and how much is too much?”
In either of the cases I described above, you and your spouse would have no choice but to skip the guidelines and negotiate instead.
Which is not always so easy to do.
And the answer to "When does child support end in Washington" isn't as simple as you might think.
The theory in Washington is that child support ends when a child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever is last to occur. So, child support ends somewhere around age 18.
But what happens if they commute to college? Don’t go to college? Boomerang back home after college?
So, while child support can end at age 18, these days, more often than not, we’re seeing that it doesn't.
The truth is, there can be exceptions agreed upon by you and your spouse. As parents, the two of you have quite a bit of latitude to decide what works for your children, in your unique situation and circumstances.
When the law gets involved, it’s a problem.
There’s something you need to understand here: In a litigated divorce, a family court judge determines child support.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it?
Because they’ll dictate a child support order and both spouses might wind up with something they don’t think is fair or that doesn’t appropriately meet the needs of their children.
That’s why it’s better to negotiate this issue out of the courts and that’s exactly what mediation is all about.
In mediation, you get to decide - and come to a child support payment (and agreement) that puts your children first and you both agree is fair, instead of letting your future be decided by a stranger in court.
You will get the best Washington State child support result by mediating with us.
Washington State child support issues will vary based on your situation and circumstances.
And as you’ve learned, there is more than meets the eye on this topic. So don't risk putting your children's financial future in jeopardy by trying to resolve child support on your own.
Use divorce mediation and work with us instead!
Using our extensive financial knowledge into the complex matters of child support in Washington State, we’ll help you and your spouse determine a child support amount that accurately reflects your lives as parents and the specialized needs of your children.
One that covers all basic, extraordinary and future expenses.
We’ll talk about who your children are, what they like to do and what it will take to make sure they’re getting what they need and deserve. Not just what the formula says you have to pay so they can “get by.”
We’ll work through specialized cases like child support for when you share in the care of your children equally. We’ll also explore arrangements in which the children spend a majority of their time with one parent as this, too, can have its own special approach.
We’ll help you negotiate any issues of disagreement and create an agreement you both find fair and equitable regarding the support of your children.
We’ll also make sure your agreement minimizes tax issues, avoids penalties and improves cash flow whenever possible.
Because no two situations or sets of circumstances are alike.
Your children are unique and your child support agreement should reflect that, too.
Equitable Mediation can help you prevent your children from becoming the economic victims of your divorce.
Why be forced to accept a settlement created by a family law attorney or judge in court when you can have a direct say in creating an agreement that works for your children now and into the future instead?
If you want your Washington State divorce to be fair and equitable, and you want to make decisions as parents, not as litigants, do what’s best for your kids and mediate your no fault divorce - out of the courts - with Equitable Mediation.
If you and your spouse have both agreed to divorce and want to mediate, take the next step and book an initial meeting for the two of you.
Joe Dillon, MBA is a professional divorce mediator and founder of Equitable Mediation Services. Joe is passionate about helping couples avoid the destruction of attorney-driven litigation and specializes in helping couples resolve the issues required for divorce -peacefully, fairly and cost-effectively. When he’s not mediating, you can find him exercising, cooking, and watching Cubs baseball.