In a support matter, the incomes of the parties will be used to calculate an appropriate award based on the support guidelines applicable throughout the Commonwealth. At the initial appearance for a support matter, both parties are asked to bring in proof of their income in the form of W-2s, tax returns, pay stubs, or other documentation of income received. If a party is unemployed or underemployed, the rules specify that an earning capacity may be imputed. Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.16-2(d)(4) explains the first step is a finding that a party willfully failed to obtain or maintain appropriate employment. Involuntary reductions in income (e.g. lay-offs or unemployment due to illness or disability) generally do not trigger earning capacity arguments.

If the reduction in income is seen as voluntary or willful (e.g. took a lower paying job or cut hours) then the court may impute an income consistent with that party’s earning capacity. Factors to consider when trying to identify an appropriate earning capacity include age, level of education, special training/skill set, work experience and prior earnings history. A Judge must explain the rationale behind any earning capacity that is assessed against a party. The earning capacity provision exists so that parties who have a support obligation cannot escape their obligation by purposely leaving their jobs or otherwise lowering their income. Under- or un-employed parties seeking to avoid imputation of an earning capacity should be prepared to show they have taken good faith efforts to secure comparable employment and that any reduction in income was for a valid purpose.