When calculating child support in a divorce, a parent might seek to deviate from the standard schedule set out by statute because s/he is already supporting a child from another relationship. But what happens when the support payments aren’t based on a court order? The Court of Appeals ruled recently that the definition of “duty of support” is broad and should not be limited to court-ordered payments.
The case involved an unmarried couple with a minor child. The state brought an action to establish paternity and set child support obligations. The father argued that he was entitled to a deviation from the statutory support schedule because he has another child and makes support payments for that child. The mother argued that deviation was not available because there was no court order establishing that he had a support obligation.
Child support is set by statute with the support obligation divided proportionately to the parents’ respective income levels. The trial court may deviate from the standard child support calculation for a number of reasons, including when a parent owes a “duty of support” to children from other relationships.
The central question faced by the Court of Appeals was whether the duty of support was limited to court-ordered payments. The court ruled that it was not.
Duty of support is defined in RCW 26.18.020(3):
“Duty of support” means the duty to provide for the needs of a dependent child … The duty includes any obligation to make monetary payments, to pay expenses, including maintenance in cases in which there is a dependent child, or to reimburse another person or an agency for the cost of necessary support. The duty may be imposed by court order, by operation of law, or otherwise.
The court rejected the mother’s argument, that deviation is limited to court-ordered obligations. It cited several instances through which the duty of support can arise, such as acknowledgment of paternity under RCW 26.26.300 et seq.; being the presumptive father by fact of marriage at the time of birth under RCW 26.26.116(1)(a); or the result of an administrative proceeding under WAC 388-14A-3100. The court also recognized that a written contract between an unmarried couple setting forth their respective child support obligations would be sufficient to establish a duty of support.
The Court of Appeals went on to clarify that to obtain a deviation from the child support guidelines due to paying for the support from other relationships, the parent must establish the existence of a judicially enforceable support obligation concerning those children.
Takeaways for parents:
- If you are paying child support, is your obligation clearly documented? Are your payments clearly documented?
- Does your petition or order for child support account for other “duties of support” that are not court-ordered?