Definition: Family Support

Under Washington State law, family support is an award of property from an estate that can be given in spite of inconsistent terms in the will of the testator, and even when the estate is insolvent.1

A decedent’s surviving spouse or domestic partner may petition the court for an award of family support. If the surviving spouse or domestic partner petitions, then the decedent’s children who are not also the children of the surviving spouse or domestic partner (i.e., children from other relationships) may also petition and may share the family support award. If the decedent has no surviving spouse or domestic partner, then his or her minor children, if any, may petition the court for the award. The award may be made from either the decedent’s community property or separate property.

The purpose of the family support award is to provide for a decedent’s surviving spouse or domestic partner and surviving children while the estate is being settled in probate, and, if the estate is insolvent, to pass at least some of the estate’s property or money to a spouse, partner, or children instead of to creditors.

A family support award takes priority over all other claims against an estate, which means that property can be awarded as a family support award even if doing so deprives the estate of sufficient assets to pay the estate’s creditors. However, property subject to an encumbrance (such as a lien or home mortgage) remains subject to the encumbrance even if given as part of a family support award.2 Additionally, the court may not make an award unless the decedent’s funeral expenses, expenses of last sickness, and expenses of administration have been paid or provided for. If an award of family support is made, then the amount of the value of the award is subtracted from the remainder of the decedent’s estate through abatement.

The basic amount of an award of family support is set by a statute, which says it is equal to the amount of Washington’s homestead exemption (which is set by a different statute).3 The statute setting the amount of the homestead exemption was amended in 2021. Whereas it used to be capped at $125,000, the homestead exemption may now be the substantially higher amount of the county median sale price of a single-family home in the preceding calendar year.4

The family support statute, enacted in 1997, replaced and eliminated other awards that used to be available, including what were called awards of “family maintenance” and awards “in lieu of homestead.”

  1. RCW Chapter 11.54
  2. RCW 11.54.060
  3. RCW 11.54.020 (establishing the amount of the award to be equal to the homestead exemption set at RCW 6.13.030(2) )
  4. RCW 6.13.030