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AGO 1994 No. 17 - October 03, 1994
AGO Opinion Header Image
Christine Gregoire | 1993-2004 | Attorney General of Washington

COURTS-FILING FEES-DISSOLUTION AND DIVORCE-Filing fee applicable on the filing of a petition for modification of a dissolution decree or petitions for extension of judgment

1.         RCW 36.18.020(5) sets the fee for filing a petition for modification of a dissolution decree at $20; this fee applies whether the petition is filed in the county where the original decree was entered or in another county.

2.         RCW 36.18.025 requires that the county and state treasuries split fees filed for modification of a dissolution decree, the county to receive 54 percent and the state to receive 46 percent.

3.         A fee collected by a superior court pursuant to section 1, chapter 189, Laws of 1994, for the filing of a petition for extension of judgment, is not a fee set in RCW 36.18.020 and therefore is not subject to the split between the county and the state.

                                                 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

                                                                 October 3, 1994

Mary Campbell McQueen
Administrator for the Courts
1206 South Quince Street, MS EZ-11                                     
Olympia, WA  98504              

                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 1994 No. 17

Dear Ms. McQueen:

            By letter previously acknowledged, you requested our opinion on two questions we have rephrased into three questions as follows:

            1.         Which filing fee applies where a petition for modification of a dissolution decree is filed in the superior court of a county other than the county where the initial decree was entered?

            2.         Is the fee collected for filing a petition for modification of a dissolution decree subject to state distribution pursuant to RCW 36.18.025?

            3.         Is the fee collected for filing a petition for extension of judgment subject to state distribution pursuant to RCW 36.18.025?

                                                              BRIEF ANSWERS

            1.         RCW 36.18.020(5) sets the filing fee for all petitions to modify dissolution decrees, and there is no basis for a distinction based on county of filing.

            2.         The fee collected for filing a petition for modification of a dissolution decree is subject to state distribution.

            3.         The fee collected for filing a petition for extension of judgment is not subject to state distribution pursuant to RCW 36.18.025.

                                                                    ANALYSIS

            Question 1:

            Which filing fee applies where a petition for modification of a dissolution decree is filed in the superior court of a county other than the county where the initial decree was entered?

            The majority of superior court filing fees are prescribed by RCW 36.18.020.  The fee for filing a petition to modify a dissolution decree is specified in subsection (5):  "For the filing of a petition for modification of a decree of dissolution, a fee of twenty dollars shall be paid."  This filing fee is consistent with RCW 26.09.175(1), which sets "a fee of twenty dollars for the filing of a petition for modification of dissolution".

            You ask whether the same fee applies where the petition is filed in a county other than the county where the decree was entered and is the first document filed in that county's superior court.  We find no basis for such a distinction.

            Our analysis begins with the plain statutory language, the starting point for ascertaining legislative intent.  State v. Reding, 119 Wn.2d 685, 690, 835 P.2d 1019 (1992).  If a statute is not ambiguous, there is no need for interpretation.  State v. Standifer, 110 Wn.2d 90, 92, 750 P.2d 258 (1988).  Both RCW 36.18.020(5) and 26.09.175(1) state unambiguously that the fee assessed for filing a petition for modification of a decree of dissolution is $20, and neither statute makes a distinction based on the county of filing.

            Further, the plain language of RCW 36.18.020(1) confirms that the section does not, under any circumstances, apply to a petition to modify.  RCW 36.18.020(1) provides:

                        The party filing the first or initial paper in any civil action, including an action for restitution, or change of name, shall pay, at the time said paper is filed, a fee of one hundred ten dollars except in proceedings filed under RCW 26.50.030 [petition for a domestic violence protection order] or 49.60.227 [action to strike discriminatory real estate contract provision] where the petitioner shall pay a filing fee of twenty dollars, or an unlawful detainer action under chapter 59.18 or 59.20 RCW where the plaintiff shall pay a filing fee of thirty dollars.  If the defendant serves or files an answer to an unlawful detainer complaint under chapter 59.18 or 59.20 RCW, the plaintiff shall pay, prior to proceeding with the unlawful detainer action, an additional eighty dollars which shall be considered part of the filing fee.  The thirty dollar filing fee under this subsection for an unlawful detainer action shall not include an order to show cause or any other order or judgment except a default order or default judgment in an unlawful detainer action.

            This subsection designates a fee for the "first or initial paper in any civil action", generally, requiring payment of a $110 fee.  The statute also creates exceptions, listing smaller fees for the first filing in certain causes of action, specifically, petitions for domestic violence protection order, actions to strike discriminatory real estate contract, and unlawful detainer actions.  RCW 36.18.020(1).

            The general fee set out in RCW 36.18.020(1) is collected upon the filing of "the first or initial paper in any civil action".  (Emphasis ours.)  Since there is no statutory definition of "action", the word should be given its plain and ordinary meaning.  SeeShoreline Comm'ty College v. Employment Security Dep't, 120 Wn.2d 394, 403, 842 P.2d 938 (1992).  To find the ordinary meaning of words, it is appropriate to resort to dictionary definitions.  SeeNational Fed'n of Retired Persons v. Insurance Comm'r, 120 Wn.2d 101, 112, 838 P.2d 680 (1992).  As defined in Black's Law Dictionary, an action "includes all the formal proceedings in a court of justice attendant upon the demand of a right made by one person of another in such court, including an adjudication upon the right and its enforcement or denial by the court".  Black's Law Dictionary 28 (6th ed. 1990).

            Although a petition to modify may be the first or initial paper filed in a particular county's superior court, it can never be the first paper filed in a civil action.  Rather, it is another formal proceeding that stems from the initial action, i.e., the petition for dissolution of marriage.  Therefore, RCW 36.18.020(1) never applies to a petition to modify.

            Since a petition for modification of a dissolution decree is not the first filing in a civil action, there is no basis for collecting the filing fee described in RCW 36.18.020(1) whether the petition for modification is filed in the county where the decree was originally entered or in a different county.  No matter where the petition for modification was filed, it does not newly evoke the jurisdiction of the court to adjudicate a fresh controversy, but rather requests the renewed attention of the court to a matter in which the superior court's jurisdiction continues from some point in the past.  In any case, RCW 36.18.020(5) and 26.09.175(1) both specify that the fee for filing a petition for modification is $20, and this specific language overcomes any more general language in RCW 36.18.020(1).  SeeGeneral Tel. Co. v. Utilities & Transp. Comm'n, 104 Wn.2d 460, 464, 706 P.2d 625 (1985) (a specific statute supersedes a general statute when both apply).

            Question 2:

            Is the fee collected for filing a petition for modification of a dissolution decree subject to state distribution pursuant to RCW 36.18.025?

            RCW 36.18.025 provides:  "Forty-six percent of the money received from filing fees paid pursuant to RCW 36.18.020 shall be transmitted by the county treasurer each month to the state treasurer for deposit in the public safety and education account established under RCW 43.08.250."

            This question, as well as question number 3, is largely considered in AGO 1994 No. 15, in which we have established several principles relating to the distribution of superior court filing fees.  In that opinion, we have determined that RCW 36.18.025 applies to those filing fees paid "pursuant to RCW 36.18.020", and that the fee for filing a petition to modify a dissolution decree is collected pursuant to that statute.  Therefore, this filing fee is subject to state distribution.

            Question 3:

            Is the fee collected for filing a petition for extension of judgment subject to state distribution pursuant to RCW 36.18.025?

            The fee for filing a petition for extension of time to execute a judgment is set out in section 1, chapter 189, Laws of 1994, which provides in relevant part:  "The petitioner shall pay to the court a filing fee equal to the filing fee for filing the first or initial paper in a civil action in the court."  Laws of 1994, ch. 189, § 1, p. 912.

            The analysis set forth in AGO 1994 No. 15, at 2, is also applicable here.  RCW 36.18.025 applies only to filing fees paid "pursuant to RCW 36.18.020".  The extension of judgment filing fee is prescribed separately in the 1994 statute, and RCW 36.18.020 was not amended to include the newly created filing fee.

            If this filing is properly considered the "first or initial paper in [a] civil action", it would be paid "pursuant to RCW 36.18.020", subsection (1).  This characterization is not accurate, however.  Similar to a petition to modify, the petition for extension of time to execute a judgment is merely another formal proceeding stemming from the initial action that led to the judgment.  It is incorrect to consider this filing the "first or initial paper in [a] civil action", and therefore RCW 36.18.020(1) does not apply.

            Also significant is the language that describes the fee for filing a petition for extension of time to execute a judgment.  It is a fee "equal to the filing fee for filing the first or initial paper in a civil action in the court".  Laws of 1994, ch. 189, § 1, p. 912 (emphasis ours).  "Equal" is defined as "of the same quantity, size, number, value, degree, intensity, quality, etc."  Webster's New World Dictionary 472 (2nd ed. 1984).  Choice of the phrase "equal to" supports the conclusion that the Legislature did not consider this filing to be the type of document characterized as "the first or initial paper in a civil action", but nevertheless intended that a commensurate filing fee be paid.

            The fee collected for the filing of a petition to extend the time to execute a judgment is not paid "pursuant to RCW 36.18.020".  Therefore, it is not subject to the county/state filing fee split required by RCW 36.18.025.

            We trust this opinion will be of assistance to you.

                                                                        Very truly yours,

                                                                        CHRISTINE O. GREGOIRE
                                                                        Attorney General


                                                                        LORETTA A. VOSK
                                                                        Assistant Attorney General
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