Contempt for Non-Payment of Support

In Warmkessel v. Heffner, 2011 PA Super 46, the Superior Court held that credit will not be given for time already spent in jail between being taking into custody and the support hearing due to non-payment of child support. The Defendant Father had been ordered to pay $260 per month in child support for his two children. After failing to pay regularly, several contempt petitions and a missed support enforcement hearing, the court issued a bench warrant for Father’s arrest. Police took the Father into custody a few months later and a hearing was scheduled for approximately 3 weeks out. At the hearing, the court found Defendant Father owed $6,037 in late child support payments and sanctioned him to a maximum of 3 months imprisonment. Defendant Father’s attorney asked the court to give Father credit for the 21 days already served and the court declined.

On appeal, the Defendant argued, among other things, that the purpose of incarceration as a sanction is meant to coerce parents to timely pay child support. Accordingly, the Defendant posits the time spent incarcerated based on the bench warrant issued by the family court was indistinguishable from the time incarcerated after the hearing in that the Defendant was able to reflect on the necessity to pay support in both circumstances. Defendant further argued that criminal defendants always receive credit for time served so the court violated his equal protection rights by treating him differently solely based on the civil nature of his case. The Superior Court determined that Defendant Father’s arguments on appeal were without merit and upheld the trial court’s decision.

The takeaway here is that child support obligations are a very serious matter. The family court has the authority to issue a bench warrant to have a party who is not making support payments taken into custody. Additionally, the court can order additional incarceration at a subsequent support hearing as a means of reiterating the importance of regular support payments and demonstrating the severity of the punishment available for failure to comply.