The Poorly Defined Terms in Child Support Law
Trying to look up the reasoning behind Washington State’s child support laws is really frustrating. For one thing, 90% of the information out there is for women looking for enforcement of a support order. Another thing is that 50% of the information directed toward men is vitriolic, sometimes misogynistic, bullshit from angry men spouting off about “the oppression of men” or it’s greedy lawyers eager to take those guys’ money from them.
But the biggest problem is the lack of definitions of terms used throughout the law. Custodial parent, for example. When custody is shared, there is no custodial parent. Obligor and obligee, terms used to define which parent owes and which parent receives, are left undefined, as though it’s supposed to be obvious. And, most frustratingly, the supplied definitions seem to be circular. The obligee is the custodial parent. The custodial parent is the one who receives child support. The parent who receives child support is the obligee.
Washington State Child Support “Standard Calculation”
Washington state has what is referred to as the “standard calculation” for calculating child support. But there’s no accounting for neither parent having majority custody. So if my children’s mother and I divorced and she only had every other weekend with the kids but we had equal income, the law weirdly offers no guidance on who should pay child support or how much.
The “basic obligation” for how much it costs to support the kids is based on combined income. Then that’s split based on the ratio of one parent’s income to the other’s. Each parent is responsible for their share of that basic obligation. Seems logical.
Calculation Worksheet Seems to Assume Higher Wager Earner Pays Child Support
But here’s where it gets weird. The parent with higher income is vaguely assumed to be the “non-custodial” parent, meaning the lower income parent is assumed to be paying 100% of their portion of the basic obligation as part of their day-to-day care for the kids. So the parent who earns less is assumed to be the “custodial” parent. I can only guess the logic is that traditionally women take the kids, women earn less, and the state needs to ensure that men are held responsible for their kids’ welfare, assuming that after divorce the father will no longer involved in daily care.
So if you fill out the calculator on the state child support website with the mother having full custody of the kids, full responsibility for their day-to-day care, but she makes more money than the dad, the differential between each parent’s support obligation makes it look as though she has to pay him. Granted it’s discretionary, so the judge gets to hear arguments and can deviate from the standard calculation at her discretion.
But in a case where one parent makes 49% of the combined income of both parents, the online forms for understanding the standard calculation all seem to assume the lower wage earner is the custodial parent and is 100% responsible for financially supporting all basic child welfare related expense. So then “standard calculation” is spilt, assuming the “custodial parent,” as defined in the previous sentence, is already paying their part, thus the higher wage earner must reimburse the other for their own share.
But we live in a world where dads keep fighting for equal custody. It’s improper to assume men don’t want shared custody or that they can’t provide a family environment that matches the quality any mother might. But women are presumed to have better parenting skills, a stronger emotional connection to emotionally maturing children, and more commitment to parenting even when custody is 50/50.
This is insane. There is simply no guidance from law or legal precedence that would allow an amicable divorce settlement to proceed with a legally defined child support payment [PDF]. When you are eager to support your kids and you have full joint custody, the child support laws look at all men as though you just beamed down from the Enterprise.
Intent: let’s hold irresponsible people responsible.
Practice: let’s keep responsible people from working things out between themselves.
Hours and Hours of Reading Precedent-setting Legal Rulings
Now that I understand what happens in court and the consequences of how we handled it, my ability to find this information is improved. I know what I should have done now, but without hiring a lawyer for what was supposed to be a simple, uncontested divorce with no custody, property, debt, or abuse issues, I can’t imagine how I should have known how to complete the child support stuff. It’s seriously difficult! There are no legal guidelines for split custody. It’s all left to the judge’s discretion. But we both trusted her lawyer to know this and treat us fairly. Both of us.
How are you supposed to prepare for divorce when some aspects, especially something as possibly contentious as child support, is totally up to the inner workings of the mind of the person who signs your divorce decree?
So that was two months ago. The paperwork is filed, the child support order is official, and I’m paying $800 more than I should be. We met with a lawyer today. Turns out we should be splitting the “basic obligation” as laid out in the “standard calculation” more evenly. My portion is about $800 less than our original child support order. She’s agreed to submit an amended child support order that takes our split custody agreement into account. What a relief!
Finding out what your child support obligation is shouldn’t be so difficult! And the assumption shouldn’t be that the dad is the “obligor” while the mother is the “obligee.” The damned form asks you about your custody arrangement, but doesn’t take it into account at all.
It’s like they took assumptions from the 50s and applied them to a digital form with no further changes or even guidance. What a frustrating system.
A Table That is Hard to Read if You Haven’t Been Through This
Anyway, here is the final calculation I discovered after all of this. I hope it can help someone else trying to walk themselves through a divorce without letting it turn into a horrific mess.
|This parent||That parent||Totals|
|Net monthly income|
|This + that.|
|This divided by this plus that.||That divided by this plus that.|
|Obligation using standard calculation|
|The parent with majority residential time receives the full amount of the other’s obligation.||Assumes one parent has a at least 65% residential custody.|
|Net proportion after transfer|
|Obligation considering split residential custody|
|Each parent is responsible for their proportionate amount of the child support obligation.||Considers that residential custody is split equally.|
|Equitable split of basic child support obligation.||Half of the total obligation minus the proportional obligation|
|Net proportion after adjusted transfer|
Good luck. You’re going to need it.