In Washington State, both parents have a financial responsibility to support their children. The amount a parent is required to pay is set forth in statute and depends on the total income of both parents. The parent who makes more money is required to pay more money. The amount of time children reside in a parent’s home can be credited toward that parent’s child support obligation.
While this system seems simple enough, it can become complicated when one parent is unemployed. Depending on the reasons for unemployment, the court may order the amount of support that the court believes the parent can afford or may order the parent to pay regardless of unemployment.
The Court First Determines Income
The state child support obligations require a court to determine the amount of money a person makes. To determine income, the court looks at paycheck stubs, bank account information, and federal income tax returns for at least the past two years. Child support calculations are based mainly on gross income, with certain deductions allowed for state and federal income tax, Social Security (FICA) taxes, and some mandatory payments like union dues.
The law requires that anyone who is able to work and support their children must do so. The only exception to this rule is when a person is involuntarily unemployed. This does not mean that a person has not been able to find a job—usually, a person is only involuntarily unemployed if they have a disability, injury, or illness which prevents them from holding a job.
If a parent can prove that he or she cannot work because of a disability, the judge has the option to relieve that parent of the obligation to pay child support. A court will usually require strong evidence of unemployability, so showing that the parent receives Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments or Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) benefits can help meet this burden.
If a parent is healthy and able to work, he is expected to work for purposes of child support. Some people believe that if they reduce the number of hours he works pending a child support order, he will be able to trick the system into ordering lower support. A parent may try to only work part time or take a reduced wage for a certain period before trial to lower her income artificially. If the court finds that a person has volunteered to earn less than he is able, it will impute her income at a historic wage. This means that even though a parent is actually making less money, the court will make its determination as though he were working full time at historic rate of pay.
When income is imputed, the person who has been ordered to pay child support must find a way to pay the full amount of child support owed. When this happens the parent will probably have to start working full time, reduce expenses and luxuries or find a second part-time job. It may mean working and going to school at the same time or entering the job market for the first time.
Most stay-at-home parents, even those with full custody, will be expected to find work and contribute to the financial support of the children. Unless a child has special needs and requires full-time care, the court will consider a stay-at-home parent voluntarily unemployed, and can impute income to that person.
In addition, while the goal of getting a college degree or other advanced degree is laudable, the judge will not likely consider attending school to be a valid reason for unemployment. Again, the law expects parents to prioritize their children first, and will expect parents to work if they are able. If a person cannot find work because they haven’t completed their schooling, for example, a person completing a GED course or a person learning English, then the court may make an exception. For others, however, the court will likely impute income which should go towards child support.
Child support can be a tricky issue to negotiate, especially when the final decision is left up to the judge. At Pacific Northwest Family Law, our attorneys help parents manage the rough waters of child support obligations.
For help with the Washington child support guidelines, contact us today by calling 509-572-3700.