Stepparents and Child Support
Stepparents play an important role in a blended family. Often, stepparents take on a multitude of traditional parenting responsibilities such as attending school functions, transporting their stepchildren to and from activities, meal preparation, homework help, providing emotional comfort, and even voluntary financial support. Stepparents, because of their relationship with the biological parent of their stepchildren, may also find themselves entangled in various legal proceedings dealing with the creation or modification of child support. The question of when a stepparent's income will be considered in determining the amount child support owed can be an important one. It is equally important to know when a stepparent might be responsible to paying child support for a stepchild.
A Stepparent's Obligations Under Normal Circumstances
In most circumstances, a stepparent is under no legal duty to pay child support for a stepchild. Under RCW 26.19.071(1), "only the income of the parents of the children whose support is at issue shall be calculated for purposes of calculating the basic support obligation." This means the income and resources of the stepparent will not be included in calculating the basic support obligation. A stepparent's income and resources must be noted in the child support worksheets, but these figures will not usually have any bearing on the basic support obligation owed. This allows the court to look at both parents' complete financial situation, which will necessarily include a stepparent's income.
A Stepparent's Obligations When A Child Support Deviation is Requested
RCW 26.19.075(1)(i) lists some of the reasons a court might use when deviating from the standard child support calculation. A deviation occurs when the court has good cause to enter a different child support obligation than what the economic tables require. The deviation could involve an increase or decrease in the amount of child support that one parent is required to provide. The reason for requesting a deviation cannot be based solely on the availability of a stepparent's income. For example, Ted's ex-wife (who is also the mother of Ted's daughter, Amy) is Cassie. Ted is now married to Terry (Amy's stepmother). Cassie cannot request a deviation in the child support calculation based solely on the fact that Terry makes $100,000 per year. Cassie must have another basis for the deviation.
A court can include the income of a stepparent in its determination of whether or not to allow a deviation, when the parent, (who is married or in a domestic partnership with the stepparent), specifically asks the court for a deviation or when either or both biological parents have children from other relationships for whom support is owed. RCW 26.19.0075((1)(a) and (1)(e)((iv). Expanding on the example with Ted and Terry, Terry's income will only be a reason to deviate from the child support calculations if Ted asks for a deviation or if Terry's income is being considered as part of the "total circumstances" of the household. Ted might base his request for a deviation on the fact that he has extraordinary debts that were not voluntarily incurred. In these cases, a court may conclude that the stepparent's income is likely being used to pay some of the household expenses, allowing the parent who is requesting a deviation, to expend less of his or her individual income on those expenses and thereby freeing up more of the parent's individual income for child support.
A Stepparent's Obligation When Their Spouse Owes Child Support
Washington State is a community property state. This means any wages earned during a marriage belongs to the community. The community in a blended family is comprised of the stepparent and their spouse. Each party has a one half interest in the community. Under RCW 26.16.200, a parent who owes support can only have that support collected out of that parent's separate property, that parent's earnings, and that parent's share of the community personal and real property. A stepparent's earnings are protected, even if those funds are in a shared bank account, so long as those earnings can be identified as the earnings of the stepparent who is not currently under an obligation to provide support. RCW 26.16.200. Further, In Van Dyke v. Thompson, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the earnings of a stepparent cannot be subject to their spouse's obligation of child support when that stepparent is neither a custodial parent of the stepchild nor under a prior obligation to pay child support for that child. Van Dyke v. Thompson, 95 Wn.2d 726, 630 P.2d 420 (1981). In other words, unless a stepchild is residing with a stepparent (and that stepparent is acting as a parent to the child) or there is a divorce or legal separation action between the stepparent and the biological parent, a stepparent generally will not be required to provide child support for their stepchild.
A Stepparent's Obligation to Pay Child Support During Their Divorce From A Parent
During a marriage, both parties are responsible for the expenses of the family and the education of the children. RCW 26.16.205. Importantly, "[t]he family includes stepchildren who are part of the family unit, who reside in the family home, or who are in the residential care of one of the adults in this family unit. It does not include children who are in the primary residential care of the other parent. Harmon v. Department of Social and Health Services, State of Wash., 134 Wn.2d 523, 951 P.2d 770 (1998).
When a divorce is filed, a stepparent can make a motion to the court seeking to terminate any obligation to support the stepchildren. Depending on the circumstances, a court may or may not grant such a motion. If child support is ordered, the obligation of the stepparent to provide support to his or her stepchildren terminates upon that stepparent's death or entry of the decree of divorce/separation, emancipation of the child, or if the child leaves the family home. RCW 26.16.205.
A Final Note
The creation and modification of child support is a complicated area of law. It is a good idea to speak to a family law attorney who is knowledgeable about child support before proceeding in any child support action. An attorney can help advise you on your options, assist with drafting the appropriate child support forms, negotiate on your behalf, and if needed, argue your case in a court of law.