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How Can I Collect Child Support?

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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3812EN - This publication provides information on how the Division of Child Support (DCS), whose services are free, can help you set and collect child support. There is a locator service to help find parents who owe support. DCS can help you set child support even if the other parent of your children does not live in the state.

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Use this publication if: 

  • You are a parent AND

  • You want to get child support for your children 

Other publications have general information:

*If you have questions about your child support situation, talk to a lawyer.

The Division of Child Support (DCS) is the state agency that collects child support from parents.  DCS collects child support:

  • When a child gets welfare payments or is in fos­ter care OR

  • If you ask the state for help collecting support 

How can DCS help me collect child support?

There is a locator service to help find parents who owe support.  DCS can help you set child support even if the other parent does not live in Washington. 

If the child's paternity has not been established, DCS will refer the case to the prosecuting attorney's office for a court order of paternity and child support.  DCS can also set the support amount through its own administrative system unless (or until) a court sets child support. 

Once child support is set, DCS can collect by withholding wages or in other ways. DCS can garnish:

  • wages

  • unemployment compensation

  • Labor and Industries payments

  • some Social Security payments

  • bank accounts

DCS can take income tax refunds and place liens on real and personal property.

DCS' services are usually free.  If you are a custodial parent who has never gotten TANF or tribal TANF, there is a yearly $25 fee for services.

How can I help DCS?

The person assigned to your case, known as a support enforcement officer (SEO), will want whatever information you have that can help in the collection effort.  If you have a child support court order, such as a dissolution decree, give the SEO a copy.  Other information that could help the SEO includes:

  • The most recent address of the other parent

  • His/her social security number

  • His/her current employer and rate of pay

  • Other financial information, such as identification of bank accounts or other assets

DCS will ask you to update this info as needed.

How does DCS collect child support?

The most common way DCS collects support is by wage withholding (garnishing).  This means taking the support directly from the other parent's paycheck.  DCS can also withhold support payments from other sources of income, such as unemployment, industrial insurance benefits, and Social Security disability and retirement benefits (but not SSI or welfare payments). 

If the other parent is not working, or has no other regular income, DCS can take funds from bank accounts and, in some cases, other types of property, such as boats and cars.  DCS can ask for the non-paying parent's federal tax refund as payment of support.  Where a parent who can pay does not, DCS can cause have their driver's or professional license suspended.

A judge can hold a parent in contempt and s end the parent to jail for refusing to pay child support.

How do I keep track of payments?

The state has a system for keeping track of child support payments called the Washington State Support Registry.  Its records are the best way to know if support has been paid or is owed.  If the other parent ever pays you directly, tell DCS so the payment records are accurate.

I am getting public assistance. Can I get support?

As a condition of receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, you must assign your rights to get child support to DCS.  (See below about cooperation and good cause.) 

This entitles DCS to get and keep the child support that would otherwise come to you if you were not getting assistance.  DSHS can keep only as much support as the amount of your TANF grant.  If the current support obligation is more than your TANF grant, and DCS collects the current support amount for two months in a row, your TANF will stop.  You will get support payments instead of TANF as long as DCS can collect the current support amount.

What right do I have to back support?

DCS often can collect unpaid back support, called "arrears," as well as current support.  If you have never gotten public assistance, you are entitled to get everything DCS collects, whether current or back support. 

If you have gotten public assistance in the past but not now, the state can keep the arrears that built up during the months you got assistance. Arrears that have built up since you last got public assistance belong to you. DCS should pay you before it keeps any arrears that belong to the state.

Arrears that accrued before you went on public assistance may come to you or go to the state, depending on when they built up and how they are collected.  The most common situation is that arrears collected by wage withholding go to the parent. Arrears collected by income tax refund intercept usually go to the state.  That does not always happen.  Ask your SEO about how DCS is distributing arrears in your case.  Get legal advice if you believe DCS may be keeping arrears that belong to you.

What if I disagree with DCS?

With every support check you get, DCS should send you information about the child support it has collected every few months. You can also check your payment history online at https://secure.dshs.wa.gov/home/default.aspx?rfs=PleaseLogin. (If you disagree with DCS' calculations or with the way they have distributed support, you can appeal.)

Ask for a hearing. Get a Notice of Objection form from DCS. Fill it out. Return it to the nearest DCS office.  You should get notice of the date, time and place of the hearing within a few weeks.  Bring to the hearing any papers which show how DCS made a mistake.

Can I get more support?

Maybe. You can petition to modify (change) the support order to a higher amount if:

  • The paying parent's finances have gotten better since the child support order was entered OR

  • The support order is old OR

  • The children's needs have changed OR

  • You have other reasons for more support 

If the paying parent's financial situation has gotten worse since the original child support order was established, s/he can petition to pay less support.  If DCS set support, DCS has a form called a Petition for Modification that you can fill out and send to the DCS office or the DSHS Board of Appeals. Here is the English version: https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/ESA/dcs/documents/09-280b.pdf. Here is the Spanish version: https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/ESA/dcs/documents/09-280BSP.pdf

You will go to a hearing.  An administrative law judge (ALJ) will decide whether to increase the support. 

If a court set support, you must go back to court to get a modification.  If you cannot get a lawyer, you can try to file the papers yourself, or ask a courthouse facilitator for help.  Some volunteer lawyer programs have classes to teach people how to do child support modifications in court.  You can also ask DCS to file a modification action on your behalf.  DCS must review support orders periodically and modify them up or down depending on the situation.

What if collection of support could harm me or my child?

Normally, in return for welfare payments, you must cooperate with DCS's efforts to collect child support from the non-custodial parent.  But if you or your child's safety could be in danger because of the state's efforts to collect support from the other parent, you may be excused from cooperating (called good cause). 

If you are concerned for your or your children's safety, tell your welfare worker you believe you have good cause not to cooperate with support enforcement efforts.  Show them any evidence of the reasons you are fearful, such as:

  • medical records

  • protection orders

  • criminal records

  • police reports

If you do not have such records, your sworn statement alone might be grounds not to cooperate. DCS' good cause form is here: https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/ESA/dcs/documents/18_334.pdf.

If the state decides you have to cooperate anyway and threatens to reduce (lower) your grant, you have the right to a hearing on the question of whether you have good cause not to cooperate.  DSHS may also decide you do not have to cooperate but that they can try and collect without danger of harm to you or the children. You can also appeal that decision.  You should keep getting your normal amount of assistance until the hearing decision.

Even if you agree to cooperate with DCS, you can have your location kept secret from the other parent if you have well-founded concerns about your or your children's safety.  If the other parent asks DCS for your child's address, DCS should notify you and give you the chance to ask for a hearing to keep it from being released.  You may appear at the hearing by phone from an undisclosed location.

DCS has more information about good cause at http://tinyurl.com/ofmqxof.

What rights do I have for interpretation and translation services?

A.  Interpreters for Legal Proceedings

In any legal proceeding started by DCS, a prosecuting attorney, or other governmental body, you have the right to have a qualified interpreter appointed and paid for if:

  • You cannot speak or understand English easily OR

  • You have a communication-related disability

Certified interpreters must be appointed for languages certified by the Office of the Administrator for the Courts, unless good cause is found and noted on the record. 

If you speak limited English, for legal proceedings not started by DCS, a prosecuting attorney, or other governmental body, you still have the right to have an interpreter appointed. You may have to pay for one if you can afford it.  You should not have to pay for an interpreter if you need one due to a disability.

If you or your witness(s) cannot easily understand or communicate in spoken language because of a hearing or speech impairment, you have the right to have a qualified and/or intermediary interpreter appointed and paid for in both civil and criminal proceedings.

If at any time during a legal proceeding you do not feel the interpreter is doing a good job, you have the right to ask for another one.

B.  Communications with DCS

DCS must provide an interpreter if your ability to communicate in English is limited.  Be sure to ask for an interpreter every time you talk to DCS. You should also get translations of any forms that could affect your rights. Be sure to ask DCS to have all your forms translated. DCS must provide these interpreter and translation services as soon as possible.  Do not sign any form or make a written agreement unless you completely 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 9:15 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. 

  • 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). 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.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers can call 1-833-6384 to get a free relay operator. They will then connect you with 211 or CLEAR.


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 June 2015
© 2015 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.)
Last Review and Update: Jun 10, 2015