Mother Did Not Violate Washington Custody Order by Claiming Child on Her Taxes

Who gets to claim the children as dependents on their tax returns can be a contentious issue in a Washington custody case.  A father recently sought a contempt order against the mother when she claimed one of the children as a dependent.

According to the appeals court’s unpublished opinion, the parties entered into an agreed child support order when they divorced in 2009.  The trial court’s final child support order provided that the mother would have the right to claim the child identified as T.A.R. as a dependent on her taxes and the father had the right to claim the child identified as M.A.R. The order further provided that “WHEN THERE IS ONLY ONE CHILD ELIGIBLE FOR TAX DEDUCTION PURPOSES,” the mother would have the right to claim the children for even years and the other parent would have the right to claim them “for the opposite years.”

After learning the mother claimed T.A.R. in the 2021 tax year,  the father moved for an order to show cause why the mother should not be held in contempt, arguing she violated the order when she claimed T.A.R. in 2021 after M.A.R. had  turned eighteen. He argued the alternating clause applied after M.A.R. turned eighteen because T.A.R. was then the only “child.” He acknowledged he could have claimed M.A.R., but argued he only would have received $500 by doing so, while he would have a $6,000 tax exemption if he claimed T.A.R.

The commissioner found the mother was not in contempt, and the father moved for revision.  The superior court denied the motion and adopted the findings, concluding the alternating language did not take effect until the father could not claim M.A.R. The court also held the father had failed to show bad faith by a preponderance of the evidence.

After the court denied his motion for reconsideration, the father appealed, arguing the court had not applied the proper definition of “child.”

The father cited RCW 26.33.020(3), RCW 13.36.030(1), and RCW 26.44.020(2), arguing they all defined “child” as a person under eighteen years old.  The appeals court pointed out, however, that these statutes did not govern the definition of “child” as used in the child support order.  The appeals court further noted that no definition of “child” was not set forth in child support enforcement provisions or the child support schedule provisions.  Furthermore, previous case law has held that a “child” is not necessarily limited to someone under the age of eighteen.

The appeals court also noted that other sections of the child support order used “child” in reference to the children after they turn eighteen. The order required support to be paid until the later of the child turning eighteen or no longer being enrolled in high school.  There were also provisions requiring post-secondary educational support for each child.  The appeals court noted the provisions referred to them as child or children, but both would be older than eighteen when the post-secondary educational obligations end.

The alternating tax deduction schedule would start when “there is only one child eligible for tax deduction purposes.” The father had admitted he could claim M.A.R. in 2021.  The appeals court concluded the clause was not triggered because M.A.R. was the father’s child and eligible to be claimed as a dependent.  The appeals court also concluded the father had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the mother had committed bad faith when she claimed T.A.R. in 2021.  The appeals court found no abuse of discretion in the superior court’s denial of the father’s contempt motion and affirmed the superior court’s order.

If you are engaged in a custody dispute involving claiming the children on your taxes, a knowledgeable Washington custody attorney can review you case and advise you.  Contact Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation.


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