Do You Owe Child Support?

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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This publication is for parents who may owe child support. Other publications discuss other child support issues.

These publications and many do-it-yourself child support packets are available at www.washingtonlawhelp.org.

How is child support set?

Child support is based on the net income of each parent and the number of children needing support. Each parent fills out "worksheets" with information about their finances and the children's needs. The worksheet's information is then applied to a child support schedule. The support schedule sets the basic support amount based on the parents' income and number of children. You can get a support schedule from:

You may send child support payments to the Washington State Support Registry, P.O. Box 45868, Olympia, WA 98504-5868. This will make sure that they properly credit your payments. You may not get proper credit for any payments you make directly to the other parent.

If you do pay the other parent directly, or if you and the oth­er parent have made some other arrange­ment, you must have a written record of the payments or an arrange­ment with DCS to get credit for those payments.

How can I make sure the correct support amount is set?

A. Court Cases

A Superior Court judge sets the monthly amount the parent owing support must pay. You must be served with papers when you are involved in a court case. The papers tell you how to respond to the court and other party (spouse/parent/state). You must properly respond to the papers.

You will get notices of important court dates when the court will make decisions about support and other issues. You must show up and be ready to take part in a trial or other court proceeding. If you do not go to court, or if you do not meet a deadline, the court may give the other party whatever they ask for, with no input from you.

If you do not respond to a paternity action, the court could name you the child's legal father. If that happens, the court may order you to pay for:

  • the costs of birth

  • court and blood tests costs

  • past and current child support

  • child's medical expenses

B. Administrative Cases (DCS/ALJ)

If there is no court order setting support, the Division of Child Support (DCS) may set support. DCS may send a Notice and Finding of Financial Responsibility (NFFR) to the parent who owes support. (Men who have signed affidavits acknowledging paternity may get a different notice. See the section below about paternity.)  An NFFR will tell you how much monthly support plus any back support you owe. DCS will send a child support schedule and worksheets if you disagree with what the NFFR says. You must respond in a timely way whenever you get notice of an appeal deadline or hearing date.

What if I disagree with the amount of support DCS says I should pay?

1. Send in your objection/request for a hearing on time.

If you disagree with the amount DCS says you owe in the NFFR, ask for a hearing (DSC calls it an "adjudicative proceeding"). There should be a form with the other papers you got called "Objection – Request for Blood Test or Adjudicative Proceeding."  State your reason for wanting to appeal in the space on the form. Deliver or mail it back to the DCS office that sent it. (The address should be on the form.)  If you cannot find the address, send your appeal to:    

DSHS Board of Appeals
P.O. Box 45803
Olympia, WA 98204-5803

You have twenty days from the day you get the NFFR to send in your appeal. (If the twentieth day falls on a weekend or holiday, you have until the next regular business day.) 

If you make an appeal within the twenty days, DCS cannot collect any support from you while the appeal is pending. If you file an appeal after the twenty-day period, you can still get a hearing, but meantime DCS can start collecting child support from you. If you wait more than a year to ask for a hearing, you must show you had good cause for the delay. Keep a copy of anything you send DCS.

2. Try to settle your dispute before the hearing.

A person called a Claims Officer will be repre­senting DCS. S/he might agree to a resolution that works for you, the other parent, and the state with­out going to the hearing. If your in­come is different from what DCS says, show the Claims Officer your own child support wor­kshe­ets with your actual income and ex­pens­es. Be ready to give proof of your income.

3. Go to the hearing if you cannot agree.

An administrative law judge (ALJ) conducts the hearing. It is less formal than a court hearing. A phone hearing has the same legal effect as when you are in front of an ALJ. The ALJ will decide your child support amount after listening to what you, the other parent, and the Claims Officer have to say.

Take at least two copies of any documents or papers you want the ALJ to consider. If DCS claims that your income is higher than what you actually get, bring copies of your income tax return, W-2 statement, wage stubs, and bank statements. The ALJ can also consider any child support you have already paid for the child. You should also bring receipts for clothing, medical bills, or other expenses you have paid for the child. Think about bringing someone as a witness who has helpful information about your ability to pay support.

The ALJ must use the state child support schedule to set support. Once the ALJ arrives at the basic support amount, s/he may for certain reasons set support higher or lower (called "deviation") than the basic amount. The Definitions and Standards section of the child support schedule explains those reasons. Example: a parent has responsibility for children from another relationship.

The ALJ will write an Initial Decision after the hearing. If you disagree with the ALJ's decision, you can appeal to superior court.

What if there is a question about who the child's father is?

The superior court can resolve disputes about a child's parentage in a paternity case. The court may also address custody, visitation and child support.

You can establish paternity without going to superior court. A father may sign an acknowledgment of paternity and file it with the state Department of Health. Then DCS may set a child support obligation against the alleged father without filing a paternity case in superior court.

A person who signs an acknowledgment of paternity may later change his mind about being the child's parent. In cases where a paternity acknowledgment was filed before July 1, 1997, the person may respond to the DCS support notice (called a Notice and Finding of Parental Responsibility (NFPR).  There will be a blood test to show whether he is the natural parent. If the blood test is negative, DCS will take no further action. If the test does not rule him out, the alleged father may ask DCS to start a paternity case in superior court. Starting a paternity action in superior court takes the power to set support from DCS and gives it to the court.

Paternity acknowledgments filed after July 1, 1997 are much different. A person's acknowledgment of paternity becomes legally binding unless he formally withdraws the acknowledgment within 60 days from the date of filing. If the signer withdraws the acknowledgment within 60 days of filing, it is not binding on the signer. Then only a superior court may establish paternity.

Once 60 days have passed from the date of filing, the paternity acknowledgment becomes binding on the alleged parent unless and until it is successfully challenged in a court case  on the basis of fraud, duress or material mistake of fact.

It is hard to successfully challenge an acknowledgement in court. Sign an acknowledgment of paternity only if you are certain you are the child's parent. Otherwise, let the superior court decide if you are the parent. If you do, you may be in a better position to resolve child custody, visitation and support issues.

How do they set child support for low-income parents?

If your monthly net income is less than 125% of the federal poverty guidelines, you will have to pay a minimum monthly amount of $50 per child. Judges/DCS may "deviate" (change) that amount if they decide it would be unjust to calculate support at the lowest level.

Here is one place to find the most current version of the federal poverty guidelines.  

How much of my income can they take to pay support?

DCS can take up to 50% of your net monthly income for collection of current support and arrears (unpaid back support). If your current support obligation is more than 50% of your net income, DCS can only collect the 50% amount. If you get government benefits that are need-based, such as unemployment benefits, Social Security Disability or Workers Comp, DCS can take up to 50% of that monthly payment.  

If you get disability from Social Security or L & I, these agencies should also be paying your children support. DCS should apply this support to a current support obligation. Talk with the person at DCS handling your case, called a Support Enforcement Officer (SEO). Your SEO can tell you how to get credit for those disability payments, or how to get them started if they are not happening.

DCS cannot collect child support from SSI or welfare benefits (TANF, Refugee Assistance). However, your back support will grow each month that you do not pay support. If you are getting SSI or welfare and your child support payment is based on a much higher income, consider a modification action to change the support amount. You may also be able to lower or even get rid of any back support you owe.

Can I change my child support obligation?

Either parent may ask DCS to review their child support order to see if it needs changing. If your case meets DCS' criteria, the prosecuting attorney can file paperwork to start the modification.

You can also change a monthly child support obligation with a "Petition for Modification."  The "Petition for Modification" only applies to future child support payments. It does not affect back support.

If your support obligation was set in a court order: You must return to court to change the support order. Our packet Filing a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Order, available at www.washingtonlawhelp.org, has forms and instructions. Or use DCS' publication, How to Obtain or Modify a Child Support Order on Your Own.

If DCS or an ALJ decision set support:  You may ask DCS to review your current order, or you can just file a "Petition for Modification" with DCS. DCS has information on its website about how to ask for the review and file the modification.   

To change a support order, a judge will want to know how things have changed since the first support obligation was set. Some examples:  a long period of unemployment, becoming responsible for more children through birth or marriage, or becoming disabled.

DCS has a duty to help you change your child support if things have changed. Your child support payment may also go up if your income rises. DCS or the other parent can ask for more support if the paying parent's income goes up.

Can I lower the amount collected?

Maybe. In certain cases, DCS can lower the amount of child support it takes from you if collecting 50% of your monthly income causes hardship. DCS can also lower the amount of income taken each month for back support you owe the state. You must show how collecting 50% of your monthly income causes hardship for you or your family. You can prove this by showing that the money left over after paying child support does not cover basic needs.

If you are in Workfirst, you must sign a waiver of the Statute of Limitations to have back support payments lowered. You can also limit back support if you are currently caring for your children. Besides lowering the monthly payments, you can also ask the state to waive or lower some of the back support you owe the state. Read on for more about the Statute of Limitations and the Conference Board.  

1. Statute of Limitations

The Statute of Limitations is a legal time limit.

On support orders signed by a judge or set by DCS on or after July 23, 1989: the statute of limitations allows DCS ten years from the date the youngest child named in the order turns eighteen to collect unpaid child support. DCS cannot go after any back support not collected by the time the youngest child turns twenty-eight.

Support orders entered before July 23, 1989: the statute of limitations is six years after the amount became due for orders entered in 1980 or before, and ten years for orders entered after 1980.

DCS will sometimes ask parents who owe child support to sign a Waiver of Defense/Statute of Limitations form. Signing the form waives the limit. Signing the form allows DCS to collect unpaid child support indefinitely. If you are low-income and owe a lot of back support, consider signing the waiver form. In exchange for signing the waiver form, you may get lower monthly payments. Lower monthly payments will give you current relief from collection and more time to pay back support.

Each case is different. Make sure you know exactly what DCS is agreeing to before signing the waiver. Do not sign the waiver before negotiating with DCS.

If a DCS worker wants you to sign the waiver before s/he will even talk about lowering the amount DCS is withholding, this is against DCS policy. Ask to talk to a supervisor.

2. Conference Board

If you have a child support problem or a grievance with DCS, you may petition for a Conference Board. DCS has a publication titled "Child Support Conference Boards" on its web site. (It is primarily for payers who have lost their job.) 

DCS employees sit on the Conference Board. You may appear before a Conference Board and ask for relief. A Conference Board decision is not the same as a hearing decision.

You cannot appeal it.

The Conference Board can decide to accept a partial lump-sum payment instead of collecting all back support you owe the state. Sometimes, you may not have to pay back support you owe the state if it would cause you or the children living with you hardship. If you ask for a "substantial hardship waiver" DCS should look at:

  • How much you have already paid

  • Your present debts and assets

  • Your income

  • Whether you are unable to work

  • Whether continued collection of unpaid support would cause severe hardship

What if I disagree with a Notice of Support Debt (NSD)?

DCS could send you a Notice of Support Debt (NSD). The Notice may claim that you owe accumulated support under a court order that sets a fixed monthly amount of support. If you dispute an NSD, you can ask for a Conference Board, or ask for a modification (see above).

If you disagree with what DCS says you owe in an NSD, you probably should go to court to get the order changed. DCS may give you credit for payments you can prove you paid. DCS cannot ignore or change the court-ordered support amount. Sometimes, DCS can decide not to collect court-ordered support.

What if I disagree with a Notice of Support Owed (NOSO)?

DCS uses a Notice of Support Owed (NOSO) to set a monthly child support obligation. DCS uses the NOSO when a court orders support without setting a fixed dollar amount.
You should ask for an administrative hearing or set up a court hearing and notify DCS within twenty days if you disagree with the suggested amount. Try to settle the amount first with your Support Enforcement Officer (SEO). Send the SEO your documents and child support worksheets showing the correct amount owed. At the hearing, you will need to show why DCS' figures are wrong.

What if my employer withholds child support from my wages but does not send it in to DCS?

Ask your SEO to take action against your employer. DCS can demand that the employer withhold wages from you to pay child support and send them to DCS. If your SEO will not take action against your employer, make a written request to DCS for them to try to collect this money. If that does not work, write to or ask to speak with your SEO's supervisor. Send a copy of your wage stubs showing the amount withheld. Keep a copy of the stubs you send in.

How can I get in touch with DCS?

There is a statewide toll-free line:  1-800-442-KIDS. Your local office may not be handling your case. The KIDS line will help you find out which office to call, and then can transfer your call toll-free.

What rights do I have for interpretation and translation services?

You have a right to an interpreter if you cannot understand or speak English. You have this right in any legal proceeding started by DCS, a prosecuting attorney, or other government body. For legal proceedings not started by DCS, a prosecuting attorney, or other government body, you may have to pay for an interpreter yourself.

You should not have to pay for an interpreter if you need one due to a disability. If you or your witness cannot easily understand or talk because of a hearing or speech impairment, you have the right to an interpreter. This interpreter is appointed and paid for in civil and criminal proceedings.

If you feel that the interpreter is not doing a good job, you have the right to ask for a new interpreter.

DCS must provide an interpreter if you cannot communicate very well in English. Ask for an interpreter every time you talk to DCS. Ask to have all forms translated, too. DCS must provide an interpreter as soon as possible. Do not sign a form or agreement unless it has been translated into your language. Do not sign any form or make a written agreement unless you understand the form or agreement.

What if I need legal help?

CLEAR is Washington's toll-free, centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance with civil legal problems. 

  • Outside King County: Call 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:10 a.m. until 12:25 p.m. CLEAR works with a language line to provide free interpreters as needed to callers. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, call 1-888-201-1014 using your preferred TTY or Video relay service.

  • King County: Call 211 for information and referral to an appropriate legal services provider Monday through Friday from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm. You may also call (206) 461-3200, or the toll-free number, 1-877-211-WASH (9274). 211 works with a language line to provide free interpreters as needed to callers. Deaf and hearing-impaired callers can call 1-800-833-6384 or 711 to get to a relay operator at no cost. They will then connect you with 211. You can also get information on legal service providers in King County through 211's website at www.resourcehouse.com/win211/

  • Persons 60 and Over: Persons 60 or over may call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111, regardless of income.



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 November 2013

© 2013 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)