In an opinion released this week, Division Three of the Washington Court of Appeals dealt directly with a father’s request to lower his child support obligation because he also paid child support for a separate child. Under Washington law, your child support obligation as a parent can be reduced based on the number of children you pay support for. In In re Parentage of O.A.J., The Court ultimately decided that the father in the case was not entitled to a downward adjustment for his child support because the child support he paid to another child was not obligated by law.
Christopher Laber had a daughter, aged 2, when he and the mother split up. Laber held a steady job and requested that his child support obligation be lowered to account for child support payments that he made for his other child. The trial court decided that his declaration alone that he paid child support for another child was not enough to be entitled to a lower child support payment. The trial court decided the law required the other child support payment to be supported by “proof of paternity and a child support order directed by a Court.” He appealed.
Division Three looked to RCW Chapter 26.19 in deciding the matter. RCW 26.19.075(1) permits a court to deviate from a standard child support obligation when a parent has children from other relationships to whom the parent “owes a duty of support”. In fact, the statute only allows a court to consider those other children for whom the parent “owes a duty of support”. A “duty of support” is defined in RCW Chapter 26.18 as a “duty . . . imposed by court order, by operation of law, or otherwise”. Division Three disagreed with the trial court’s ruling that a downward deviation based on other child support obligations must be supported by a child support order. However, Division Three did find that the child support obligation must be somehow enforceable by the courts.
Because RCW 26.18 is a mechanism by which the courts can enforce the support obligation, there must be sufficient formality to the obligation that a court has something to enforce. That is the essence of the statutory provision. And it is the reason that we agree with the trial court’s decision to deny the deviation request. We hold that to obtain a deviation from the child support guidelines due to paying for the support of children from other relationships, the parent must establish the existence of a judicially enforceable support obligation concerning those children.
Interestingly, the Court held that the enforceability of the obligation might be as simple the existence of a written contract between the parties. Therefore, a parent who pays support for a child who he or she is technically not court ordered to pay, would do well to reduce the obligation to a written contract. Of course, a judicial finding of paternity and a court order of child support is the best method, the Court left the door open for less sophisticated methods.