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Washington child support, custody, visitation, and wage garnishment rules

Use this Washington child support law to learn about your child support rights and responsibilites.

How is Washington child support determined?

In Washington, either parent may be ordered to pay child support. Marital misconduct is not considered. The courts will consider all relevant factors. The courts may also require either parent to provide health insurance for the child.

There are official Washington Child Support guidelines, designed to be in the best interests of the child, that the courts use to help set child support amounts. The guidelines will be followed, unless the parents have agreed to a child support amount approved by the courts, or the courts determine the guidelines are unjust for a particular case.

At what age does child support payments end?

Generally, the obligation ends when the child reaches 18 years of age or the child graduates from high school, whichever occurs later. A child will also automatically be ineligible for child support if that child marries, is removed from disability status by a court order, or the child dies.

When considering whether or not to order support for postsecondary educational expenses, the court shall determine whether or not the child is in fact dependent and is relying upon the parents for the reasonable necessities of life. The court will exercise its discretion when determining whether or not and for how long to award postsecondary educational support based upon the following factors:

  • the age of the child
  • the child's needs
  • the expectations of the parties for their children when the parents were together
  • the child's prospects, desires, aptitudes, abilities and/or disabilities
  • the nature of the postsecondary education being sought
  • the parents' level of education
  • the parents' standard of living
  • the parents' current and future resources
  • the amount and type of support that the child would have received if the parents had stayed together

Washington's custody guidelines:

Generally, the parents agree upon decisions about parenting and custody. If there is no agreement, then the courts will make these decisions.

In Washington, joint or sole custody may be awarded based on the best interests of the child, but joint or "shared" custody is presumed to be in the best interest of the child. Every petition for divorce in Washington in which a minor child is involved must include a proposed parenting plan. Parents are encouraged to make an agreement concerning the parenting plan.

The parenting plan objectives are to protect the best interests of the child, and to:

  • provide for physical care for the child
  • maintain the child’s emotional stability
  • provide for the child’s changing needs, minimizing the need for future modifications
  • designate the authority and responsibility of each parent
  • minimize the child’s exposure to negative conflict
  • encourage the parents to reach agreements regarding the child

The parenting should provide for:

  • dispute resolution
  • a residential schedule for the child
  • how the decision-making authority relating to the child is allocated

If the parents have not made agreements, the courts will determine the decision-making authority of the parents and the residential provisions for the child. Equal-time alternating residential care will only be ordered if:

  • there is no history of domestic or substance abuse, abandonment or neglect
  • the parents have agreed to joint residential custody
  • there is a history of shared parenting and cooperation
  • the parents are available to each other, especially in terms of location
  • this arrangement is considered best for the child

Washington's medical insurance guidelines:

Health insurance coverage for the child will be provided by one or both of the parents if the coverage for the child is available through employment or is union related, and the cost of the coverage does not exceed 25% of the obligated parent's basic child support obligation.

When the child has special needs, health insurance coverage will be provided by one or both of the parents even if the cost of the coverage exceeds the obligated parent's basic child support obligation.

The obligated parent must maintain health insurance coverage for the child, if available, until further notice from the court or until health insurance is no longer available through the parent's employer or union.

A parent who is required to provide health insurance coverage is liable for any covered health care costs for which that parent receives direct payment from an insurer. The obligated parent must also provide proof that coverage is available or not available within 20 days of the order or within 20 days of the date the coverage becomes available. The proof of coverage must be sent to the custodial parent or to the Washington State Support Registry, depending on where the parent has been ordered to send payments. 

If the proof of health insurance coverage availability is not provided within 20 days, the custodial parent or the Department of Social and Health Services may seek direct enforcement of the coverage through the obligated parent's employer or union without further notice to the obligated parent.

How permanent are the provisions for Washington child support and custody ?

Court orders providing for support and custody of children are subject to change or modification to reflect changes in income, and/or living arrangements of the children.

While all orders concerning the children are modifiable in the future, we encourage you to not enter into an agreement based on the idea that it can always be changed or modified later.

Washington law permits a party to seek current information on income and taxes from the other party. The parents must turn over this information to the statewide Child Support Schedule. Ideally, the parents would compare this information and agree on whether or not an adjustment is proper. If they can agree, they may obtain the adjustment in an written agreed order. If one parent refuses to cooperate with the adjustment, a court hearing may be required to review financial information and rule on an adjustment.

The court may order adjustments to the residential aspects of a parenting plan upon the showing of a substantial change in circumstance of either parent or the child. This kind of a change can be difficult to prove.

The court may approve a minor modification in a parenting plan without proof of a substantial change in circumstances if the proposed modification does not change the primary residence of the child or if the modification is based on a change of residence or an involuntary change in work schedule by a parent which makes the residential schedule in the parenting plan impractical to follow. A minor modification may not result in a change that exceeds of 24 full days or 90 overnights pre year.

In order to approve a modification, the court must find that the decree of dissolution or parenting plan does not provide reasonable time with the non-primary residential parent at the time the petition for modification is filed. The court must also find that it is in the best interest of the child to increase residential time with the non-primary residential parent.

Additionally, any minor modification will not be the sole basis for adjusting or modifying child support.

Wage garnishment for child support payments:

Most states, including Washington, have a provision for withholding child support directly from the earnings of the parent who has been ordered to provide support. The payments are withheld much like income tax is withheld from earnings payments.

This way of paying and receiving child support is generally easier for both parties and considered a very dependable solution. The way it typically works is, once the support is withheld, it is then sent to the state agency authorized to receive and disburse payments. Once it has been verified that the support was paid, it is then sent to the parent designated to receive the support.

If a non-custodial parent can show that they are providing more than 50 percent of the support for dependents not included in the court order from a second marriage, and is not in arrears, no more than 50% of their disposable income can be attached if they cannot pay the full court-ordered amount of both orders.

That number goes to 55% if the non-custodial parent is in arrears, 60 percent for a person only providing support to dependents under the current order, and 65% for a person who is in arrears and paying only on the current order.

How does joint custody work?

Joint custody is now widely recognized by parents, courts and state legislatures as the preferred parenting plan in much of the nation.

In Washington, the courts decide on both joint and sole decision-making authority of the parents, and parental residential care, which could include equal-time alternating residential care. They have considerations in making decisions in both areas.

So it’s possible to have a 50-50 sharing of responsibilities and major decisions affecting the children, and not a 50-50 sharing of time or residential care with the children. It’s also possible to have both a 50-50 sharing of responsibilities and a 50-50 sharing of time or shared residential care with the children.

How Washington determines child visitation:

Generally, parents are free to visit with their children at all times that are mutually agreed to by both parents. When the courts have not awarded the parents with the equal-time alternating residential care provision, and the parents cannot agree to exactly when visitation will occur, the standard visitation schedule accepted most everywhere in the nation is:

  • every other weekend
  • four to six (4-6) weeks during the summer
  • alternating holidays
  • two mid-week overnights per month (if the parents live reasonably close together)
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