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Washington Mother Denied Child Support When Father Had Custody

The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has the authority to enforce a Washington child support obligation.  If there is no child support order, DSHS may serve a notice and a finding of financial responsibility (“NFFR”) on the responsible parent.  If the parent objects, the parent’s past liability and responsibility is determined at a hearing.  RCW 74.20A.055.

A mother recently challenged an Administrative Law Judge’s denial of her request for child support.  The father was ordered to pay $1,794.24 in past due child support when the parents divorced.  An amended parenting plan in 2010 awarded custody of both children to the father and gave the mother limited visitation.  The court found the mother “may have an adverse effect on the child’s best interests…”

The mother moved for review and adjustment of visitation rights.  The court allowed expanded visits and calls, but kept the supervision requirement.  In a review in January 2011, the court found she remained “a danger to her children’s safety, health, and welfare.”

The father satisfied his child support obligation in 2011 and no other orders required him to pay child support.

In 2016, the son ran away to live with his mother.  The father and son each filed an at-risk youth petition and the mother moved for a hearing, seeking to change the parenting plan.

The court found the mother “meddled in the minor children’s relationship with their father,” had unsupervised contact with them, and kept the son in violation of the court’s order.  The court entered a finding of bad faith against her and sanctioned her $25 for each day she did not return the son.

The father and son dismissed their at-risk-youth petitions after agreeing the son would live with a friend.  The son went back and forth between his father’s home and the homes of friends until he turned 18. The father considered the son as living with him until he turned 18.  The father paid his expenses and  the son came back whenever he wanted.

The mother filed a non-assistance assistance application for child support for the son in 2017, alleging the son lived with her. DSHS served an NFFR on the father, imposing child support starting on January 1, 2018 and proposing a back support obligation from July through December 2017.

The father requested an administrative hearing.  At the hearing, the mother claimed the son lived with her since September 2016 and provided documents showing his address as her home.

The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found the superior court had exclusive jurisdiction over custody.  He dismissed the NFFR and denied all child support because the mother had deprived the father of custody in violation of the court’s order.  The ALJ noted the father had custody and the mother only had supervised visitation.  The ALJ also noted the court’s repeated expression of concern about the child’s safety in his mother’s care.  The court had sanctioned the mother for keeping the child in violation of its order. The ALJ further noted the father had only dismissed his Youth at Risk petition based on an agreement the son would live with a friend.  The father never agreed to the son living with the mother.  The ALJ also noted the mother had not gone back to the court to modify custody, but instead tried to “circumvent this process” by seeking the assistance of DSHS.

The mother appealed.  The superior court affirmed the ALJ’s decision, and the mother appealed to the appeals court.

The mother argued the ALJ erred in finding the superior court had continuing exclusive jurisdiction to grant her request for past-due child support.  DSHS contended the mother misinterpreted the ALJ’s order.  DSHS argued the ALJ’s statement regarding jurisdiction only applied to custody and that the ALJ would not have even considered the issue without jurisdiction.

The appeals court noted the ALJ stated DSHS and he had jurisdiction over the application for assistance.  Additionally, he dismissed the application “because [the father] has shown wrongful deprivation of custody. . .”  The appeals court found the ALJ’s conclusion of law stated the court held jurisdiction over the child’s custody, not child support.

The mother also argued the father failed to prove wrongful deprivation of custody.  DSHS may help a custodial parent collect child support.  The regulations define a “custodial parent” as “the person . . . with whom a dependent child resides the majority of the time period. . .”  The mother argued the child lived with her most of the time starting in September 2016.  Wrongful deprivation of physical custody is a defense to liability for child support.  RCW 74.20.065.  The father could show wrongful deprivation by showing an order by a court of competent jurisdiction gave him legal and physical custody, that order was not modified, dismissed, or superseded, the child was taken or enticed from his custody without his consent, and he made reasonable efforts to regain physical custody within a reasonable time and continues to do so.  WAC 388-14A-3370.

The appeals court found the record showed the mother had interfered with the father’s custody repeatedly.  She had previously harbored the son when the father had custody of him. The appeals court noted she used abusive conflict to encourage him to live with her.  She also hid her unsupervised contact.

There was sufficient evidence the father had used reasonable efforts to regain custody. He filed the at-risk-youth petition. The appeals court found he had “never relinquished custody.” He kept paying the son’s expenses and the son kept coming to his home.  He had previously successfully fought the mother’s attempt to get custody.

The appeals court affirmed the rejection of the mother’s application for assistance with child support.

The father’s actions here helped show he did not consent to the son living with the mother. If you are facing custody or child support issues, you need an experienced Washington family law attorney on your side.  Schedule a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC, by calling (206) 622-6562.

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