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Change Your Child Support Court Order

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project - CLEAR Intake Line LSC Funded

This can give you a basic understanding of the laws that apply to changing a Washington State Child Support court order or responding to a proposed change. This information is presented as a list of frequently asked questions. #3814EN

Contents

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Part 1: Important Info

Part 2: Questions and Answers

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?

Part 3: Words You Should Know


Part 1: Important Info

This should help you understand  how to change a Washington State Child Support court order or respond to a proposed change.  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 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 below which you should do.

If you decide after reading this 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 court clerk or family law facilitator (if there is one) if they have their own packet. They may be easier to use.
This website has all of our family law packets and the publications mentioned here. If you have a low income and no access to a printer, visit your local library or call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014 to get them mailed to you.

Part 2: Questions and Answers

A. What is child support?

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 their children. A stepparent has a legal duty to help support their stepchildren until one of these happens:

  • a divorce from the child’s parent is final

  • the court issues an order saying otherwise (RCW 26.16.205)  

B. How is the child support amount set?

Under Washington state law, it is usually set based on both of these:

  • the parents' incomes

  • the number and ages of the children

The amount comes from the Washington State Child Support Schedule. Read How is Child Support Set?

C. Do I need a lawyer?

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 have a very low income, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.

*Use the glossary at the end of this publication as you read! It explains important terms you should know.

D. Can I file a court action in Washington to change my support?

Yes, if both these are true:

  • You have an order from a Washington Court

  • You, the other party, or the child lives in Washington (RCW 26.21A.120)

E. What if I do not think my case should be in Washington?

If you do not live in Washington, a court here may not have jurisdiction (power) to make you do (or not do) certain things.

1. When does Washington have jurisdiction to modify a child support order?

Generally, when both these are true:

    • Your current Child Support Order is from Washington.

    • You, the other parent OR child still lives in Washington.

2. Can I change a child support order from another state? 

Maybe, under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), RCW Chapter 26.21A.  Contact a lawyer (if you have a low income, call CLEAR AT 1-888-201-1014) or the Division of Child Support (DCS).

3. I do not think my case should be in Washington.  What can I do?

You must file papers to argue about jurisdiction and ask the judge to dismiss the case BEFORE filing anything else.  See a lawyer for advice if you can.  If you cannot, be very careful. Do 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 do this, go to the hearing (or try to have it by phone. Call the court to arrange beforehand). Tell the judge why you think there is no jurisdiction over your case. The judge might rule for you and dismiss your case. If she does not, be ready to respond to the court case in Washington.

*If you are going to a hearing to say 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 to the hearing. If the judge decides Washington has jurisdiction, ask the judge to read your response.

F. Do I have an order issued by a Washington Court?

In Washington, a court order is a “Child Support Order”. An administrative order is a “Notice and Finding of Financial Responsibility”, a “Notice and Finding of Parental Responsibility” or an “Initial Decision and Order”.  

Look at the top of the first page of the papers you received.  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 this describes you, and you have a low income, contact CLEAR (1-888-201-1014). Ask for How to Ask DCS to Review Your Child Support Order for Modification.

G. I have children from different relationships. Do I file a separate action for each?

YES.

H. Can I lower my back child support through adjustment or modification?

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.  (RCW 26.09.170(1)(a).)  There are two exceptions:

  • The current Support Order lets you change support before the date you filed your motion.

  • You have supported the children in your home for a long 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 have a low income, call CLEAR. Read Do You Owe Child Support?

I. How do I change my child support court order?

There are two different 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. You must meet legal criteria.  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 you think the other party has filed the right type of case. If not, or you think they have not met the legal requirements, say so in your response.

1. Can I file a Motion for Adjustment of Child Support?

Yes, if

(1) Your Support Order says you can file this motion AND you have followed the instructions in the Periodic Adjustment paragraph of your Support Order but have not been able to reach agreement with the other parent;[1]

OR


(2) It has been two years (24 months) since the entry of your current support order AND both of these are true:


(a) Your income or the other parent's income has changed

(b) The Economic Table Standards in RCW 26.19 have changed (RCW 26.09.170(9)(a) & (10))


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.  

Not everyone can file this motion. You must meet the legal requirements to file one.  
Usually, you can only change the support amount with this motion.  If your Support Order already requires the other parent to share daycare, educational expenses or uninsured medical costs, you may also be able to change the amounts 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 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. Can I file a Petition to Modify Child Support Order?

Yes, IF:

(1) You meet the requirements for filing a motion for adjustment (above).

OR

(2) One year has passed from the date of entry of your current support order; AND one of these is true:

(a) The order causes a parent or child severe economic hardship;

OR

(b) You want the other parent to pay support beyond age 18 so the child can finish high school (the child must still be in high school when you file);

OR

(c) You want to add an automatic adjustment of support provision according to RCW 26.09.100.[2]

OR

(3) Your current Child Support Order was entered by default (without notice to you).

OR

(4) You can show a substantial change in the circumstances of either parent or the children.  It does not matter how long it has been since the entry of your current support order.  RCW 26.09.170(1)(b)  

A "substantial change in circumstances" usually is something you had no control over. Examples: injury or illness that keeps you from working; a layoff; going to jail; a change in the child’s needs.

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[3] 

  • voluntary, such as quitting your job, or deciding to go to school or take a lower paying job (RCW 26.09.170(7))

  • if you are the parent getting support, because you got a raise (RCW 26.09.170(9)(d)

*If you are asking for support modification because of a substantial change in circumstances, you must be able to prove that change happened.

OR

(5) At the time the court entered an agreed child support order, it did not review the order for adequacy.[4] 

J. Where should I file my court action?

In one of these counties:

  • Where the existing Support Order was entered

  • Where the child lives

  • Where the person with custody lives (RCW 26.09.280)

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.

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. Use Our File a Motion for Change of Venue in a Family Law Case packet. Or get the forms from the facilitator, or ask the clerk where to buy legal forms for your county. If you have a low income, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.

K. I have been served with papers to change my child support. What should I do?

1. Talk as soon as possible with a lawyer with family law expertise if you can afford one. If you have a low-income, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014.

2. If you cannot get timely legal advice, figure out if this 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 you a Summons and Petition to Modify Child Support Order, you have a Support Modification case. Use our Respond to a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order packet.

If you received a Notice of Hearing or Note for Calendar Motion, and a Motion to Adjust Child Support Order, you have an Adjustment case. Get our Respond to a Motion to Adjust Your Child Support Order packet.

If you received 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 Respond to Motions for Temporary Family Law Orders or Immediate Restraining Orders for Divorce Cases and Petition to Change Parenting Plan Cases packet.

4. You Must Respond on Time! When served with legal papers, act right away.  Figure out how to respond.  If you do not do so on time, the other party will probably win automatically.  You may have as few as four business days after being served to file a response to a Motion.  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.  Find out if there is a Notice of Hearing (also called Note for Motion, Note for Calendar Hearing, and/or Note for Motion Docket).  If so, you must file your response by the date in the notice. If the notice does not state a deadline, immediately ask the clerk or facilitator what the deadline is.  Usually, 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 their 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.  Usually, you must get the motion papers at least five court days before the hearing, not including the date you receive the papers. If you get the papers by 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 judge should not rule against you at the hearing. You should still ask for a continuance (delay) before the hearing. You can also ask for a continuance if you got enough notice according to the rules, but you simply need more time to respond.

As soon as you know you want a continuance, contact the other party or their 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.  If you do not ask for a continuance until you show up for the hearing, the judge may make you pay the other party for wasting their time.  This is especially true if the other party has a lawyer.  

If the other person agrees to the continuance, ask for written confirmation. If they do not agree, you can:

  1. Respond as best you can and get ready for the hearing.  You should respond in some way if you can.  The first thing to say in your declaration is that you want a continuance. If you did not get enough notice, say so. 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. Family Law: How to Get a Continuance of Your Hearing has a sample letter. You should also file a Notice of Appearance.  It keeps the other party from going to court without giving you notice.  That form, and instructions for it, is in Respond to a Motion to Adjust Your Child Support Court Order  or Respond to a Petition to Modify Your Child Support Court Order.

  2. 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.  This order allows you to bring your motion in less than the required time.  The facilitator or clerk may have more info.
  3. Ask for a Continuance at the Hearing.  When they call your case, stand up.  State your name.  State that you want a continuance. The judge may ask your reasons.  The judge may ask the other party why they did not want 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 this out, but you did not get any notice of the hearing, 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.  Act fast. 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.

L. I cannot afford a lawyer. I do not qualify for free legal services. Are there other options?

Yes:

  1. Some counties offer a “Self-Help” class.  You can learn how to file your own support modification or adjustment.  It may be more expensive than this packet but help more with local forms and procedures. You should take a class if available. To find out if your county has a class, ask the facilitator or clerk.

  2. Some counties have family law facilitators.  They can help you file in court.  They cannot give legal advice.  They often have do-it-yourself packets for your county.

  3. Ask the Division of Child Support (DCS) to Modify Your Order.  DCS has a Review for Modification process to determine if they will start a modification. DCS can modify 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.  Read the next section. 

M. Will DCS file a modification?

If your children start getting public assistance, DCS (through your local prosecuting attorney’s office) may file a petition to modify your support order. They can also file if there is a substantial change in circumstances. Even if there is not, DCS may file anyway if one of these is true:

  • Your support order is at least 25% lower (starting 7/28/19, 15% lower) than the support you should be paying based on your current income

  • Starting 7/28/19, the parent paying child support is now in jail or prison

Reasons to Ask DCS to Review your Order:

  • DCS often has access to info about the other parent’s financial situation that you may not have.

  • DCS may have the other parent’s address and be able to serve the other parent.

  • If DCS takes your case, they will do 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 if they will file for 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.  See WAC 388-14A-3900 through 388-14A-3925.

  • DCS and the prosecutor’s office do not represent you.  You must still represent yourself in any hearing. DCS will use info they gather from you to collect any support you owe.

N. How do I ask DCS for a review and modification? 

Call or visit your local DCS office. Get and fill out both of these:

  • Review and Modification request form

  • Statement of Resources form

Give DCS the forms, with proof of your income (paystubs, income tax return forms, benefits statements).  DCS will contact the other parent and review your order to decide if they will modify it.  Read How to Ask DCS to Review Your Child Support Case for Modification, call your DCS office, or check www1.dshs.wa.gov/dcs.

O. How long will a modification or adjustment take?

Generally, a motion to adjust is quicker than a petition.  It can take a month or less.

The amount of notice you must give the other parent for a Motion for Adjustment will depend on local rules.  Usually, you must give the other parties at least five court days’ notice.  (Court days are Monday through Friday and are not legal holidays.)  Some counties require fourteen days.  Ask the clerk or facilitator.  If you serve the other parent by mail, you must add at least three days for mailing, or more, if the third day would be a Sunday or legal holiday.  Civil Rule 6(a), (d) & (e).

How long it will take to fill out a Petition to Modify Child Support Order will depend on:

  • the county you are filing in

  • where the other parent lives

A parent living in Washington has twenty days after service to respond to your petition. A parent living outside Washington or served by mail has 60 days to respond.  RCW 26.09.175(3); RCW 4.28.110.  A parent served by publication has 90 days to respond.  If he does not respond in time, you can ask the court to enter final orders by default.

If the other parent responds, how long it takes to finalize the case will vary.  Some courts will give you a trial date at the start of the case.  Others expect you to file a request for a trial date after the other parent files a response.  You may have to go through arbitration.  You can only ask for a trial if you disagree with the arbitrator’s decision.  RCW 7.06.020(2).  A petition to modify a support order may take two to three months to finalize.

The court decides support modification trials by affidavit.  RCW 26.09.175(5).  The court reads everything you and the other parent filed.  The court will not let people testify.  If you need testimony, you must file a motion asking to allow it at trial. You must file this motion within ten days after getting the notice of hearing.  RCW 26.09.175(6). 

P. What happens if I marry the other party to the child support order?

All parts of the order about support automatically end if you later (re-)marry the other parent.  RCW 26.09.170(4).

Q. Are there do-it-yourself packets for changing child support?

*Some counties have family law facilitator’s offices in the courthouse.  They may have do-it-yourself packets on motions for adjustment and support modifications with local rules and forms.  Use the facilitator’s packet instead of using ours . To find out if your county has a facilitator, ask the court clerk, or look at the list at WashingtonLawHelp.org.

Section 3: Words and Expressions You Should Know

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.)

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 and parties' names, 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. In most places here, we just say “judge.”

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.

Footnotes:

1. To find out if you have a Periodic Adjustment paragraph, look at paragraph 13 of your 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 can use a Petition to Modify Support if you meet the requirements for filing one.

2.RCW 26.09.170(5).  You do not need to show a substantial change in circumstances if you meet these requirements.


3.Lambert v. Lambert, 66 Wn.2d 503, 508-09, 403 P.2d 664 (1964); In re Marriage of Zander, 39 Wn. App. 787, 695 P.2d 1007 (1985).

4.Pippins v. Jankelson, 110 Wn. 2d 475(1988).

 

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 October 2019.

© 2019 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.)

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Last Review and Update: Oct 18, 2019
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