Washington Appeals Court Affirms Denial of Post-Secondary Educational Support

Washington postsecondary educational support may be ordered when a child is dependent and relies upon the parents for reasonable necessities.  The court has discretion in ordering postsecondary educational support.  RCW 26.19.090 provides a non-exclusive list of factors to be considered.

A mother recently challenged a court’s denial of her motion for postsecondary educational support for her son after the court had awarded such support for her daughter a few years earlier.

According to the unpublished opinion of the appeals court, the initial child support order entered in 2012 was amended in June 2020 to adjust the support for the son and order the father to pay 58% of the daughter’s postsecondary educational expenses.  At that time, $9,454.69 in monthly net income was imputed to the father.

The mother petitioned to modify the order in May 2022 to require both parties to pay postsecondary expenses for the son.

The father argued he was not in a financial position to contribute to the son’s college education and suggested the funds left in the educational savings account the parties had established should be available for the son. His financial declaration reported $3,480.62 in net monthly earnings, $4,906 in monthly expenses, and $913 in available assets.  The father was paying a debt to the IRS and reported $25,232 in consumer debt.

The mother argued the trial court should impute $12,870.52 in gross income for the father, as it did in the 2020 order.

The father argued he never earned $12,000 in gross monthly income.  He claimed the IRS payments and child support obligation depleted his financial resources.  He said his income was “dramatically” reduced as a result of the pandemic.  He stated that, as of August 2022, he expected about $50,000 in gross earnings in 2022.

The commissioner ruled postsecondary educational support was not warranted pursuant to RCW 26.19.090 in light of the father’s inability to pay and the financial resources of the parties.  The court found the father’s income decreased from more than $92,000 in 2020 to about $55,000 in 2021, according to his tax returns.  The trial court also found $55,000 was a reasonable projection of his 2022 gross income. The trial court denied the mother’s petition and denied attorney’s fees for both parties.

The mother appealed.  She argued the trial court abused its discretion by not making a finding on whether the son was dependent, not expressly considering all of the statutory factors, not entering detailed findings regarding the father’s inability to pay the son’s college expenses, and not calculating the net income of the parties and determining the advisory support obligation.

The appeals court rejected the mother’s argument the trial court need to make a finding regarding whether the son was dependent because the father had not disputed that issue.

The trial court was not required to enter written findings for the statutory factors, however. It had made an express finding the father did not have the financial ability to contribute and ordering postsecondary educational support would create a hardship for the father.    There was evidence and argument related to most of the factors.  Without evidence otherwise, the appeals court presumed the trial court considered all of the factors and the evidence.

There was no authority supporting the mother’s argument the court was required to apply the child support schedule when determining whether to order postsecondary educational support.

The mother also argued the trial court “made no attempt” to determine their incomes and the father failed to produce sufficient evidence of his current income.  She argued the trial court should have imputed income to him.

The appeals court noted there was “substantial evidence of the parties’ incomes. . .” The trial court considered two years’ worth of the father’s bank statements, an income summary, his 2020 and 2021 tax returns, documentation of his IRS debt, and credit card statements.

The mother argued, however, the father failed to comply with King County Superior Court Local Family Law Rule 10(b)(1) by not supplying evidence of his income for the six months before he filed the financial declaration.  The mother had not objected.  Additionally, the father’s declaration showed he was an independent contractor paid by direct deposit from two companies.  Therefore, his bank statements reflected the payments he received in the six months before he filed the financial declaration. The appeals court concluded there was sufficient evidence to determine the father’s current income.

The mother also argued the trial court abused its discretion by not scrutinizing the father’s explanation for his reduction in income.  She argued the father just blamed the pandemic and that this was not credible when he had earned more than $90,000 in 2020.  The father, however, stated he stopped receiving income from one company in June 2022 after the retailer discontinued it.  He also stated he was unable to sell the other company’s product because shutdowns in China in early 2022 reduced production volume.

The mother also argued there was not substantial evidence supporting the projected income calculation.  She argued that the bank statements between November 2021 and May 2022 reflected average deposits higher than the monthly gross income the father reported. A calculation using this average would result in a higher annual gross income than the court calculated.

According to the appeals court, including the father’s gross income for May, June, and July 2022 in the average resulted in an amount that corresponded with the projected annual income found by the trial court.  The appeals court concluded substantial evidence supported the projected income.

The mother also argued there was not substantial evidence supporting the court’s finding the father was unable to contribute to college expenses for the son.  She argued his employment status did not change and no longer had the prior support obligations. She also argued the trial court failed to consider evidence that he made cash withdrawals at casinos.

The record did not indicate the court had not considered the changes in the father’s support obligations or his discretionary spending.  The trial court had acknowledged “miscellaneous” spending by the father, but concluded it was “not concerning.” The appeals court concluded the trial court properly weighed the evidence.  The appeals court concluded substantial evidence supported the court’s finding and found no abuse of discretion in its finding postsecondary educational support would be a substantial hardship.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s order and denied both parties’ requests for attorney’s fees.

As this case shows, whether a court orders postsecondary educational support is highly fact-specific.  The father in this case had been ordered to pay post-secondary educational support for the older daughter, but his circumstances changed by the time the son was ready for college. Whether you are seeking or opposing post-secondary educational support, a skilled Washington family law attorney can help.  Contact Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562 for a consultation.


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