Children are not cheap. Married or unmarried, parents alike understand this shortly after their child (or children) come into the world. The new parents’ world suddenly turns from budgeting for themselves, to themselves plus one-often, followed by another, sometimes another, and so on.
As this occurs, families, in their own unique design and ways, usually curb costs and remap their household’s division of labor and time: often, one parent dials back their work hours and prior income and the other parent dials up theirs to compensate. Families, in their ordinary senses, don’t consider “child support” as a specific monthly total, other than spending however much it costs working and raising a family together and their unique budgets.
But when families separate-as more than half of them do in King County-one necessary question arises: how do the parents (or if they can’t, then the court) determine a fair amount for parents to contribute towards their children in light of this new living arrangement?
Child support in Washington is determined by the parents’ combined net incomes and the age and number of children they have together. Using that information, the amount a parent pays is determined by application of an “economic table.” The economic table, similar to tax brackets, indicates how much child support a family making a certain combined amount should pay, considering the age and number of children they have together to support.
For instance, a family earning $5,000 per month (the father’s and mother’s combined incomes), has a basic child support obligation of $738 for one child under the age of 12; if they had two children, also under the age of 12, the same family would owe $574 for each child (e.g., $1,148).
A parent’s basic child support obligation is more for children 12 or older. In the same scenario above, but assuming a 12 year old child (or older), the amount increases: $912, for one child and $708 per child for a two child family (e.g., $1,416). The legislature, in other words, has determined it costs more to raise older children than younger children and that is reflected in the economic table.
To arrive at each parent’s individual obligations, requires a second step. The court requires parents pay the total support obligation amount in ratio to their percentage share of their combined incomes. As applied to the scenario above: if the father earns $2,500 and the mother earns $2,500 (e.g., 50% of the total income), then his child support obligation would be 50 percent of the total basic child support obligations identified above. As the parents move up and down in income across the economic table, their support obligations increase or decrease. The economic table is available at RCW 26.19.020. There are unique circumstances and basis for a parent to pay more or less than their percentage share of the basic support obligation provided in the economic tables. Those reasons are called child support “deviations,” either “upward,” or “downward.” Those scenarios are beyond the scope of this blog and will be addressed separately in others.