Changing Your Child Support Court Order
Authored By: Northwest Justice Project
- A. What is child support?
- B. How is the child support amount set?
- C. Do I need a lawyer?
- D. Can I file a court action in Washington to change my support?
- E. What if I do not think my case should be in Washington?
- F. Do I have an order issued by a Washington Court?
- G. I have children from different relationships. Do I file a separate action for each?
- H. Can I lower my back child support through adjustment or modification?
- I. How do I change my child support court order?
- J. Where should I file my court action?
- K. I have been served with papers to change my child support. What should I do?
- L. I cannot afford a lawyer. I do not qualify for free legal services. Are there other options?
- M. Will DCS file a modification?
- N. How do I ask DCS for a review and modification?
- O. How long will a modification or adjustment take?
- P. What happens if I marry the other party to the child support order?
- Q. Are there do-it-yourself packets for changing child support?
This publication should help give you a basic understanding of how to change a Washington State Child Support court order or respond to a proposed change. We offer some frequently asked questions and the answers to those questions. The facts of your case may differ from those we discuss here. Talk with a lawyer about your case.
*If you have an administrative order issued by the Division of Child Support (DCS), read our publication How to Ask DCS to Review Your Child Support Order for Modification.
You can try to change a court's order of support by filing a Motion for Adjustment of Child Support or a Petition to Modify Child Support Order. We discuss which method to use in Question 10 below.
If you decide after reading this publication to try to change your support order, use one of our do-it-yourself packets listed at the end of this publication. Or ask your county court clerk or family law facilitator (if your county has one) if your county has its own packet. Local packets may be easier to use. They have needed local forms and procedures.
Our web site at www.washingtonlawhelp.org has a complete list of our family law packets. Or, if you are low-income, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.
It is money a parent pays to someone taking care of the children (usually, the other parent) to help support the children. You usually must pay monthly. The amount is based on the Washington State Support Schedule. It considers
the children's needs
both parents' income
A parent has a legal duty to help support his/her children. A step-parent has a legal duty to help support his/her stepchildren until
a divorce from the child's parent is final OR
the court issues an order saying otherwise 
Under Washington state law, child support is usually set based on:
the parents' income AND
the number and ages of their children
The amount comes from the Washington State Child Support Schedule. Our publication Understanding the Washington State Child Support Schedule and How Child Support Is Set in Washington has more information.
If you can afford it, before filing anything in court you should meet with a lawyer specializing in family law. Even if you cannot afford to hire a lawyer to file your case, talk at least once with one for advice. If you are very low-income, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.
*Use the glossary at the end of this publication as you read! It explains meanings of some important terms you should know.
you have an order issued by a Washington Court AND
you, the other party, or the child lives in Washington
If you do not live in Washington, a court here may not have jurisdiction (power) to order you to do (or not do) certain things.
1. When does Washington have jurisdiction to modify a child support order?
Generally, you may file a motion for adjustment or petition to modify a support order in Washington if:
- Your current Child Support Order is from Washington AND
- You, the other parent OR child still lives in Washington
2. May I change a child support order from another state?
Maybe, under a law called the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), RCW Chapter 26.21A. Contact a lawyer (if you are low-income, call CLEAR AT 1-888-201-1014) or the Division of Child Support (DCS) for more information first.
3. I do not think my case should be in Washington. What should I do?
You must file papers to argue about jurisdiction and ask for dismissal BEFORE filing anything else in the case. See a lawyer for advice if you can. If you cannot, be very careful to not do anything that could give Washington jurisdiction over you. Do not:
- file a response
- sign agreed orders
- ask the court for anything but dismissal of the case
If possible, write the court before the hearing. Explain why you believe Washington does not have jurisdiction over you. If you cannot write the court before the hearing, go to the hearing in person (or try to have the hearing by phone. Call the court to arrange beforehand). Tell the judge why you think there is no jurisdiction over your case. If the judge decides in your favor, s/he should dismiss your case. If s/he does not, be ready to respond to the legal action in Washington.
*If you are going to a hearing to tell the judge you do not think Washington has jurisdiction, you should still prepare a response to the motion or petition. Do not file the response. Bring it with you to the hearing. If the judge decides Washington has jurisdiction, you may then ask the judge to read your response.
In Washington, a court order is called a "Child Support Order". An administrative order is called a "Notice and Finding of Financial Responsibility", a "Notice and Finding of Parental Responsibility" or an "Initial Decision and Order".
Look at the papers you received to see if you have a court or administrative order. You have a Washington superior court case if the papers say "Superior Court of the State of Washington, County of _______" at the top. You have an administrative case if your papers say "State of Washington Department of Social and Health Services Division of Child Support" or "State of Washington Office of Administrative Hearings" at the top.
If you have an administrative case, and you are low-income, contact CLEAR (1-888-201-1014). Ask for the packet called How to Ask DCS to Review Your Child Support Order for Modification. Or get it from www.washingtonlawhelp.org.
NO, except in a very few situations. A petition to modify or motion for adjustment of child support usually can only change child support amounts that take place after you file the petition or motion. There are two exceptions to this:
Your existing Child Support Order specifically allows you to change support before the date you filed your motion.
You have supported your child(ren) in your home for a substantial time even though the court ordered you to pay the other parent support.
Before trying to modify based on an exception, talk to a lawyer or, if you are low-income, call CLEAR. Our publication called Do You Owe Child Support? has more about back support.
There are two different procedures (ways) under Washington law for changing a permanent court Child Support Order:
a Motion for Adjustment of Child Support
a Petition to Modify Child Support Order
*The court will not always change a child support order. There are legal criteria you must meet. See RCW 26.09.170.
If you are trying to change your child support: read this section to find out which action to file.
If you have been served with an action to change child support: read this section to see if the other party has filed the right type of case. If you think the other party has not filed the right type of action, or has not met the legal requirements, put this in your response.
1. When may I file a Motion for Adjustment of Child Support?
(1) Your Child Support Order says you can file this motion AND you have followed the instructions in the Periodic Adjustment paragraph of your Child Support Order but have not been able to reach agreement with the other parent;
(2) It has been two years (24 months) since the entry of your current support order AND
(a) Your income or the other parent's income has changed;
(3) It has been at least one year (twelve months) since the entry of your current support order AND one of the children has turned twelve (and changed age categories in the support schedule) since the entry of the last order.
A motion for adjustment generally is faster and simpler. A court can decide it with less advance notice. You usually have only one hearing. There is less paperwork. But not everyone can file a motion for adjustment. You must meet the legal requirements for filing one. Typically, you may only change the support amount in an adjustment proceeding. If your Child Support Order already requires the paying parent to share the cost of daycare, educational expenses or uninsured medical, you may also be able to change the amount of those expenses that each parent must pay.
*You should file a Petition to Modify Child Support Order if you want to add (or take away) a requirement that a parent must pay daycare, educational expenses, or other expenses not in your current Child Support Order, or if you want to change who can claim the federal income tax exemption for the children. Do not file a Motion for Adjustment.
If a motion for adjustment of child support is not the right legal action for you, you can file a Petition to Modify Child Support Order if you meet the requirements. See below.
2. When may I file a Petition to Modify Child Support Order?
You may file this IF:
(1) You meet the requirements for filing a motion for adjustment (above).
(2) One year (twelve months) has passed from the date of the entry of your current child support order; AND one of these is true:
- The order causes a parent or the child severe economic hardship;
- You want the other parent to pay child support beyond age 18 so the child can finish high school (the child must still be in high school when you file);
(3) Your current Child Support Order was entered by default (without notice to you).
(4) You can show a substantial change in the circumstances of either parent or the children (no matter how long it has been since the entry of your current support order).
A "substantial change in circumstances" usually is something you had no control over. Examples: an injury or illness that keeps you from working; a layoff; going to jail; a change in the child's needs.
To meet the legal requirements to modify a child support order, the "substantial change in circumstances" cannot be:
something a parent or the court knew about at the time of entry of the current support order OR
voluntary, such as quitting your job, or deciding to go to school or take a lower paying job OR
if you are the parent getting support, because you got a raise
*If you are asking for a child support modification because of a substantial change in circumstances, you must be able to prove that a substantial (significant) change in your situation has taken place.
(5) At the time the court entered an agreed child support order, it did not independently review the order for adequacy.
In one of these counties:
Where the existing Child Support Order was entered
Where the child lives
Where the person with primary residential custody of the child lives
If the other parent has filed a motion or petition for modification in the wrong county, you must file a Motion for Change of Venue. Our packet Filing a Motion for Change of Venue in a Family Law Case has some of the forms you need. Or get them from your Family Law Facilitator, or ask the court clerk where to buy legal forms for your county. If no one has this packet, talk to a lawyer. If you are low-income, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.
1. Talk as soon as possible with a lawyer with family law expertise if you can afford one. If you are low-income, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.
2. If you cannot get timely legal advice, figure out whether the case is a court case or an administrative case. (See question 6 above.)
3. If the case has been filed in Superior Court, figure out what type of court case it is.
Look at the title of your papers (in the upper right section of the first page, under the case number).
If the papers you received include forms called a Summons and a Petition to Modify Child Support Order, you have a Support Modification case. Get our packet called Responding to a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order.
If the papers you received include forms called a Notice of Hearing or Note for Calendar Motion, and a Motion to Adjust Child Support Order, you have an Adjustment case. Get our packet called Responding to a Motion to Adjust Your Child Support Order.
If the papers you received include a Notice of Hearing or Note for Calendar Motion, but have a Motion for Temporary Family Law Order, you have a Motion for Temporary Family Law Orders case. You could receive both a Petition to Modify Child Support Order and a Motion for Temporary Family Law Orders. Get our packet called Responding to Motions for Temporary Family Law Orders or Immediate Restraining Orders for Divorce Cases and Petition to Change Parenting Plan Cases.
4. You Must Respond on Time! When served with legal papers, you must act right away to figure out how to respond. In most cases, if you do not respond on time, the other party will automatically win. For a motion, you may have as few as four business days after receiving the papers to file your response. It may take time to find legal resources and read this publication and the appropriate response packet. Start as soon as possible after getting the papers. If you cannot respond in time, you must file a Notice of Appearance and ask for a continuance. (See below.)
5. Figure out How Much Time you have to Respond. When you get the papers, see if there is a Notice of Hearing (also called Note for Motion, Note for Calendar Hearing, and/or Note for Motion Docket). If there is, you must file your response by the date in the notice. If the notice does not state a deadline, immediately check local court rules OR ask the court clerk or family law facilitator what the deadline is. For most counties, you must respond (the other parties and the court clerk and judge must receive your papers) by 4:30 p.m. the court day before the hearing. Court days are all days except weekends and federal and state holidays.
6. Make Sure You Got Enough Notice. The person who files the motion (usually the other parent or his/her lawyer) must give you enough notice of the hearing. You must receive the papers (in person or at your home) as many days before the hearing as local rules require. For most counties, you must get the papers for a motion at least five court days before the hearing, not including the date you receive the papers. If you get the papers by first class mail, you should get three extra days to respond after the date the papers were mailed.
7. What if I Need More Time? If you did not get enough notice, the court should not rule against you on the hearing date. You should still ask for a continuance (delay) before the hearing. You may also ask for a continuance if you got enough notice according to the rules, but you simply do not have enough time to respond.
As soon as you know you want a continuance, contact the other party if possible (or their party's lawyer, if they have one). It is best to email or fax. State that you need more time to respond to the papers. Ask for a new hearing date. Depending on why you need the delay, you could ask for a week or longer. You must ask the other party for a continuance if you know you need one. If you do not, and you just show up for the hearing, the judge/commissioner may make you pay the other party for having to waste time appearing for the hearing if the judge believes you could have asked for a continuance in advance. This is especially true if the other party has a lawyer. The other party must pay the lawyer for his/her time even if the hearing does not happen.
If the other person agrees to the continuance, ask for written confirmation. If the other person does not agree to the continuance, you can:
Go ahead and respond as best you can and get ready for the hearing. You should respond in some way if you possibly can. The first thing to say in your declaration is that you want a continuance. If you did not get enough notice, say that. If you did, but you need more time, say that. Then describe how you tried to get the other person to agree to the continuance. Our publication called Family Law: How to Get a Continuance of Your Hearing has more info and a sample letter. You should also file a Notice of Appearance. It informs the court in writing that you want to take part in your case. It also keeps the other party from going to court without giving you notice. A Notice of Appearance form, along with instructions on how to fill it out, is in our do-it-yourself packets on responding to a Motion to Adjust Your Child Support Court Order or a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order.
File a Motion for Continuance. You may not have enough time to give the other party the notice needed for a motion for continuance. You may need to get an Order Shortening Time (an order allowing you to bring your motion on less than the required time). This packet does not discuss this motion. The family law facilitator or court clerk may have more information. Ask for a Continuance at the Hearing. Go to the hearing. When they call your case, stand up and state your name and that you would like a continuance. The judge/commissioner may ask your reasons, and may listen to the other party's reasons why they did not want to agree to a continuance. If you tried to get the other party to agree before the hearing, let the judge know that.
8. What if the Hearing Already Happened? If you find out that a hearing already happened, but you did not get any advance notice, talk with a lawyer as soon as possible. If you cannot afford a lawyer and you live outside King County, contact CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014. If you live in King County, contact the King County Bar Association Neighborhood Legal Clinics program. You may be able to ask the court to vacate (cancel) the orders. You must do so very quickly. The longer you wait, the harder it may be for you to vacate the orders. It can be very hard to vacate orders that are more than a year old.
In some counties, you may take a "Self-Help" class. In some counties, these classes teach you how to file your own child support modification or adjustment. A class may be more expensive than this packet but provide you more help filling out forms and with local court procedures. You should take a class if available. To find out if your county has a class, contact the family law facilitator or court clerk.
Some counties have family law facilitators who can help you file your own child support action in court. They cannot give legal advice. But they often have do-it-yourself packets designed for your county.
You can ask the Division of Child Support (DCS) to Modify Your Order. DCS has a process called Review for Modification. Through that process, DCS will determine whether they will start a modification. DCS can modify your order whether it is an administrative or court order. The standards for DCS modification are in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) at WAC 388-14A-3900 through 388-14A-3925.
If your children start getting public assistance, DCS (through your local prosecuting attorney's office) may file a petition to modify your child support order. DCS also may file anytime there is a substantial change in circumstances. Even if there is not, DCS may file anyway if it determines that:
Your support order is at least 25% lower than the support you should be paying based on your current income AND
There are no reasons for deviation from the standard calculation in your support order
Reasons to Ask DCS to Review your Order:
DCS often has access to information about the other parent's financial circumstances that you may not have. DCS may also have the other parent's address and be able to serve him/her.
If DCS takes your case, DCS (or the prosecutor or attorney general, if you have a court order) will prepare much of the needed paperwork.
Reasons NOT to Ask DCS to Review your Order:
It will take at least two months for DCS to determine whether they will file the modification. The process may take longer than that to get started.
DCS will not file a modification in every case. Your order must usually be at least three years old and qualify for a change of at least $100 a month. You may need to meet other criteria as well. All the rules governing DCS modifications are in WAC 388-14A-3900 through 388-14A-3925.
DCS and the prosecutor's office do not represent either parent. You must still represent yourself in any court or administrative hearing. DCS will use any information they gather from you to collect any child support you owe.
Call or visit your local DCS office. Get and fill out these:
- Review and Modification request form AND
- Statement of Resources form
Give DCS the completed forms, with proof of your income (paystubs, income tax return forms, benefits statements). DCS will contact the other parent and review your order to determine whether they will modify it for you. Our publication How to Ask DCS to Review Your Child Support Case for Modification has more information. Or call your DCS office or check their website: http://www1.dshs.wa.gov/dcs.
Generally, a motion to adjust will be quicker than a petition to modify. It may take a month or less.
The amount of notice you must give the other parent for a Motion for Adjustment will depend on the local rules of the county where you are filing the motion. In most counties, you must give the other parties at least five court days' notice. In some counties, it is at least fourteen days. Ask the court clerk or facilitator. (Court days are Monday through Friday and are not legal holidays.) If you serve the other parent with your motion by mail, you must add at least three days for mailing (or more, if the third day would be a Sunday or legal holiday).
How long it will take to fill out a Petition to Modify Child Support Order will depend on:
- the county you are filing the petition in AND
- where the other parent lives
A parent who lives in Washington has twenty days after service to respond to your petition. A parent who lives outside Washington, or is served by mail has 60 days to respond. A parent served by publication has 90 days to respond. If s/he does not respond in time, you may ask the court to enter final orders by default and your case will be final.
If the other parent responds, how long it will take to finalize your case will vary. In some counties, the court will give you a trial date at the start of the case. In others, you must file a request for the court to set a trial date after the other parent has filed a response. You may have to go through arbitration. You can only ask for a trial if you disagree with the arbitrator's decision. A petition to modify a child support order may take two to three months to finalize.
The court decides child support modification trials by affidavit. The court reads the pleadings and other papers you and the other parent have filed. The court will not swear in witnesses or let people testify. If you need testimony at your trial, you must file a motion asking the court to allow testimony. You must make the motion within ten days after getting the notice of hearing.
All parts of the order about child support will automatically end if you later (re-)marry the other parent.
To start a motion for adjustment, get our packet called Filing a Motion to Adjust a Child Support Order.
If you have been served with a motion for adjustment, get our packet called Responding to a Motion to Adjust a Child Support Order.
To start a support modification, get our packets called Filing a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order and Finalizing a Modification of Your Child Support Court Order.
If you have been served with a support modification, get our packets called Responding to a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order and Finalizing a Modification of your Child Support Court Order.
If you have been served with a motion for temporary family law orders, get our packets called Responding to a Motion for Temporary Family Law Orders or Immediate Restraining Orders for Divorce Cases and Petition to Change Parenting Plan Cases and Child Support Orders for Divorces, Parentage Cases and Petition to Change Parenting Plan Cases.
If your children have ever gotten public assistance (welfare), get our packet called Serving Papers on the State.
*Some counties have family law facilitator's offices in the courthouse. Some family law facilitators have do-it-yourself packets on motions for adjustment and child support modifications with the special rules and forms that county uses. Get the facilitator's packet instead of using ours . To find out if your county has a family law facilitator, check with your court clerk, or look at the list on our website: www.washingtonlawhelp.org.
Affidavit: A written statement made under oath and notarized by a Notary Public. Affidavits are no longer required in Washington. The courts now use Declarations. (see definition below.)
Bailiff: A member of the judge's/commissioner's staff who is in charge of courtroom procedure and security. Sometimes called the "clerk."
Calendar: The court's schedule of cases to be heard. Also called a Docket.
Caption: The heading of each legal document. It has the court's name, the parties' names, the case number, and the name of the document itself.
Certified Copy: A copy of a paper from a court file made by the court clerk. Has an official stamp on it. Usually, you must pay for a certified copy.
Clerk of the Court: An officer of the court who handles clerical matters like keeping records, entering judgments and providing certified copies. Usually, there is one head clerk. Many people who work in the Clerk's Office are also clerks. A judge or commissioner's assistant can also be called clerks.
Commissioner/Court Commissioner: Like a judge. Only makes decisions in a particular type of case. Many counties have family law commissioners who decide cases only about family law.
Continuance: Putting off your court hearing to a later date.
Custody: The parent/person with whom the child lives most of the time has "custody" of the child. Washington uses the term "primary residential care" rather than "custody."
DCS/ Division of Child Support: The state office (part of DSHS) that establishes, enforces, and sometimes changes child support obligations in many cases.
Declaration: A written statement you make to the court under oath.
Default Order: An order you can get if the responding person does not respond on time. When a court enters a default order, the person who filed the petition/motion usually gets everything s/he asked for in the petition/motion.
Dissolution: The legal word for divorce.
Enter (an Order): A judge or commissioner enters an order when s/he signs the order and it is filed with the Court Clerk.
Ex Parte: Going before the court without notifying the other party. Some courts have special departments for hearing motions without notice to the other party, called ex parte departments.
File/Filing: Giving court papers to the Court Clerk's office as part of a legal case. Filed court papers become part of the official records in your court case. You file court papers to start (or respond to) a case or motion.
Impute/Imputing Income: Estimating or making up an income for a parent whose income is unknown. You cannot use just any income. You must base it on these, in order:
Full-time earning at the parent's current rate of pay
Full-time earnings at the parent's historical rate of pay
Full-time earnings at a past rate of pay based on incomplete or sporadic information
Full-time earnings at minimum wage in the jurisdiction where the parent lives, if s/he has a recent history of minimum wage earnings, is coming off public assistance or other programs, has recently been released from jail/prison, or is a high school student
If you do not have any of the above information on the other person, use the Approximate Median Net Monthly Income table in the child support schedule.
Jurisdiction: The court's authority to make decisions regarding certain people and issues. If a court does not have jurisdiction, it does not have the power to make orders.
Motion: A request to the judge (or court commissioner) to make a decision about one or more issues in a legal case. Usually, one party in a legal case files a motion with the court. The other party has a chance to give the court a response. The judge or commissioner issues a written decision called an Order that both parties must follow.
Motion Docket: The court's schedule of motions to be heard.
Note/Notice of Hearing/Note for Calendar Motion: A written request to the clerk to schedule your case for hearing.
Order: A judge or court commissioner's decision, usually written. In some cases, each party will give the judge a proposed (or sample) order. The judge makes changes to and signs the order the judge decides is the right one.
Parentage: The legal name for a paternity case.
Petitioner: The person who first files a legal case. The petitioner in a form's caption does not change, even when the other party later files motions.
Pro Se: Representing yourself in court.
Primary Residential Care: The parent (or other person) with whom the child lives most of the time has "primary residential care" of the child. Also called "custody."
RCW: Revised Code of Washington is the law that applies to court cases in Washington State. The numbers following "RCW" tell you the title, chapter and section of the law.
Respondent: The person against whom a legal case was originally filed. The respondent in a form's caption does not change.
Served/Service/Serving: When one party gives another legal papers, the other party has been served. Our do-it-yourself packets explain the rules about how to correctly serve a party.
Venue: The county where the case should be filed.
WAC: The Washington Administrative Code refers to the regulations that apply to administrative and DSHS proceedings in Washington. The numbers following "WAC" tell you the chapter and section of the regulation.
1. This packet has footnotes, like this one. They tell you the law or court case that supports the statement that comes before the footnote. RCW stands for Revised Code of Washington, the law of Washington State. Court cases have names, such as In re Marriage of Parent. Use the footnotes to look up the law at your local law library, or to tell the court when you are trying to make a legal argument. The references to the law are up to date as of the date we published this packet. The law sometimes changes before we can update the packet.
2. RCW 26.16.205; Stahl v. DSHS, 43 Wn. App. 401, 717 P.2d 320, review denied, 106 Wn.2d 1009 (1986).
3. RCW 26.21A.120. You also must not have agreed in writing to allow another state to modify your order.
4. RCW 26.09.170(1)(a). The court can make the new order effective on any date between the dates your petition or motion is filed and the new order. In re Marriage of Glass, 67 Wn. App. 378, 388-89, 835 P.2d 1054 (1992).
5. To find out if you have a Periodic Adjustment paragraph, look at paragraph13 of your current Child Support Order. Follow its instructions to adjust support. If you have a periodic adjustment paragraph in your Child Support Order but you do not understand it, talk to a lawyer. If you have a periodic adjustment paragraph, you may use a Petition to Modify Support if you meet the requirements for filing one.
8. RCW 26.09.170(5). You do not need to show a substantial change in circumstances if you meet these requirements.
10. RCW 26.09.170(1)(b). If your support order was entered before June 7, 1984, you can also file a petition for modification to add or change the health insurance coverage requirements.
13. RCW 26.09.170(7); In re Marriage of Mattson, 95 Wn. App. 592, 976 P.2d 157 (1999).
16. RCW 26.09.280.
19. RCW 26.09.175(3); RCW 4.28.110. Service by publication is service by publishing a copy of the summons in a newspaper for six weeks. This type of service is expensive. The court will not waive (excuse) the publication fee. RCW 26.09.175(2) & RCW 26.23.055(3) specifically authorize service upon another party by certified mail at the party's last known address, so you probably will not need to serve the other party by publication in a child support modification or adjustment case.
20. RCW 7.06.020(2).
This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of July 2016.
© 2016 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014.
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)