Last Updated: July 15, 2022. Report error / Make suggestion

The following information is extracted from the Washington State Appleseed Reentry Guide, updated where necessary.

What is child support?

Child support is money that a non-custodial parent (a parent that the child does not live with most of the time) pays to the custodial parent (the parent the child lives with) to help provide for the needs of the child.

Who is a “parent” of a child?

A child support order can only be entered against a noncustodial parent if the legal relationship between the parent and child is established. It’s not enough for the parent and child to be biologically related. There are four ways that a person can be determined legally to be a parent of a child:

  • Birth mother. A woman who has given birth to a child is the legal parent of the child.
  • The “Marital Presumption”. A person is presumed to be a parent if he or she is married or in a domestic partnership with the mother of the child and the child is born during the marriage or domestic partnership or within 300 days after it is ended.
  • Acknowledgement of Paternity. This is a legal document in which the biological mother and father state under oath that the father is the only possible biological father of the child. If the mother is married to another, then the Acknowledgement must be accompanied by the spouse’s Denial of Paternity which states that the spouse knows that he is not the biological father of the child.
  • Court Order. A state, tribal or foreign court can also establish who the child’s parent is by court order.

How do I know what I have to pay in child support?

What you must pay will be set forth in a child support order from a court or the Division of Child Support (“DCS”). In most cases, the child support order states that the child support payment should be sent to the Washington State Support Registry (“WSSR”). WSSR then sends the payment to the custodial parent.

How does the child support process work if the legal relationship between the parents and the child is already established?

A Support Enforcement Officer (“SEO”) of DCS will gather information about the income of the parents and use it to calculate a proposed child support amount. That calculation is sent to the parties in a “Notice and Finding of Financial Responsibility.” If nobody objects to that notice, it becomes a legally enforceable child support order. If you do not agree with the amount of child support that has been calculated, you must object by contacting the SEO by telephone or in writing. A hearing will then be set before an Administrative Law Judge who will decide the final child support amount.

How is the amount of child support I owe determined?

Monthly child support amounts are based on both parties’ incomes and the number of children to be supported using the Washington State Child Support Schedule.

While this schedule sets the basic child support, deviations up or down can occur if the noncustodial parent is obligated to support other children, their assets and debts, and limits on either parent’s earning capacity, such as incarceration, disabilities, or incapacity.

What happens if I don’t pay child support?

If you don’t make your required child support payments, DCS can have your wages garnished, your driver’s license revoked and/or take your property. If you are out of jail and fail to make your payments, DCS also can refer your case to the county prosecutor, which could result in jail time.

What happens to my child support obligations while I’m in prison?

Your monthly child support obligation doesn’t stop if you are imprisoned. If you haven’t sought to modify your obligation while in prison, you will have to pay the full amount upon release. You cannot modify it after your release.

Additionally, DCS may file a lien against your property or a credit report to secure debt. If you have assets or accounts, DCS may try to seize them or any money in your prison account.

What should I do if I am served with legal papers concerning child support?

Do not ignore them! It is very important that you open and read them as soon as possible. This will give you the most time to respond to whatever legal papers you receive. If you don’t understand the documents, find someone who can assist you. If you do not respond, a “default order” giving the other party everything it asks for may be entered. The paperwork you receive will include your deadline to respond.

Instructions and forms for responding to a petition to modify child support order.

Instructions and forms for responding to a motion to adjust child support order.

Do I have a right to free legal help for my child support case?

No, you do not have a right to a free attorney to represent you in child support hearings. If you do not have an attorney, contact a family law facilitator at your local superior court. While they can’t give you legal advice, they can help you fill out the required forms. Facilitators may charge a fee, but low-income individuals can request that the fee be deferred or waived. Find a court facilitator (for cases in Skagit County).

If my child support order was modified during my incarceration, what happens once I am released?

Read your support order. Sometimes when an order is modified because the noncustodial parent is in prison, the order will say that support obligations automatically go back to the old amount once you are release. Otherwise, you should expect that the custodial parent or DCS may start a modification action.If you are served with legal papers, be sure to read them and respond by the deadlines.

What happens if I can’t find work after I am released?

Keep in touch with DCS. While your support obligation doesn’t go away just because you aren’t working, telling DCS that you are looking for work can help you avoid having your license suspended or your case referred to the prosecutor (and potential jail time).

Consider applying for DCS’s Alternative Solutions Program, where a case worker will help you with finding a job, lowering your monthly payments and other matters. More information about DCS’s Alternative Solutions Program.

You can email the program at or call at 360-664-5028 or 1-800-604-1146.

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