A Washington child support order may be modified in certain circumstances. A court may order modification of child support if there has been a substantial change of circumstances since the current order was entered. A court may also order a modification at least one year after the current order was entered without a finding of a substantial change in circumstances if it finds the existing order results in an economic hardship on either parent or on the child. Additionally, after two years from entry of the existing order, adjustment, or modification, the court may adjust the order based on changes in the parents’ income without a finding of a substantial change in circumstances. RCW 26.09.170.
A father recently appealed a denial of his petition for modification of his child support obligation. The parents divorced in 2016. The court ordered the father to pay $1,167 in child support each month based on $10,000 per month in imputed income. The trial court found he had provided insufficient information regarding his income. At the time of the divorce, the father traveled internationally, lived in Dubai, and gave expensive gifts. The appeals court noted the child support order reflected a conclusion by the trial court that the father was hiding assets.
The father petitioned for modification after nearly three years. He claimed his income had decreased significantly and the child support was now a hardship.
The mother opposed the modification and moved to dismiss. She argued the father had still not provided sufficient evidence of his earnings. She also alleged the father was behind in paying child support.
Noting neither party had provided sufficient income information, the commissioner denied the mother’s motion and set a briefing schedule and hearing. The father then provided a declaration, bank statements, and tax returns. He attested he moved back to the U.S. He further stated that he was remarried and now supported his wife, as well as his child that lived in Russia. He stated he was self-employed and therefore did not have pay stubs. He further stated he had fallen behind in child support because he could not afford the ordered child support.
The mother submitted employment records showing a $1,000 increase in her income since the divorce.
The commissioner found the father was hiding income. The commissioner also found it would not be equitable to base an adjustment only on the mother’s increase in income when the father had not provided sufficient evidence. The Commissioner dismissed the father’s petition and awarded attorney fees to the mother.
The father moved to revise the commissioner’s order, but the judge denied the motions and assessed attorney fees against him. The father appealed.
Although the father had relocated and remarried, the trial court found it could not determine that his financial status had changed substantially because of the lack of financial information. Additionally, the appeals court found the missing information supported a finding the child support did not result in severe financial hardship for the father. There were inconsistencies in the information the father provided.
The appeals court further found the trial court had exercised its reasonable discretion when it declined adjusting the child support based on the mother’s increased income. The statute allows, but does not require, a court to adjust child support based on an income change. The trial court found it would be inequitable to adjust the support based only on the mother’s income when the father had not provided sufficient financial information for the court to evaluate his actual financial status.
The father further argued the trial court should have imputed income, rather than keeping the previous order in place. The appeals court found, however, that he failed to meet the initial burden of showing there was a legal basis for the modification. It would therefore have been improper for the court to have granted a modification. Without a basis for modification, the court had to maintain the order that was already in place.
The appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the father’s petition. The appeals court did, however, reverse the attorney fee award. The father had submitted some financial records, and a reasonable person could have found that those records were sufficient to support the petition. The appeals court found that the father’s petition was not frivolous, as the merits were at least debatable. He therefore should not have been sanctioned with an order to pay the mother’s attorney fees.
If you are facing a child support case, an experienced Washington family law attorney can work with you to identify the necessary evidence to support your case. Set up an appointment with Blair & Kim, PLLC, by calling (206) 622-6562.