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There are a number of remedies available to promote payment of support obligations within Pennsylvania. First, Pennsylvania does wage garnishment where possible to ensure payments are collected in full on a consistent basis. If a payor does fall behind, the court will call the party in for contempt proceedings. A payor who is able to catch up at the time of the contempt proceeding will usually avoid any further sanctions. Alternatively, if the court accepts a repayment plan offered by the payor there may not be any further enforcement remedies pursued. If a payor cannot make payment in full or offer a satisfactory plan for catching up on payments, they will have to go before a Judge to discuss their failure to keep up with their support obligations.

If a party fails to appear for contempt proceedings the court has the authority to issue a bench warrant to have that party taken into custody. Additionally, the court can order additional incarceration at subsequent support hearings as a means of reiterating the importance of regular support payments and demonstrating the severity of the punishment available for failure to comply. Other enforcement remedies include seizure of payments from a government agency such as unemployment compensation, social security, retirement or disability payments, seizure of works’ compensation benefits and seizure of retirement funds in pay status. The court may also place a lien on real property, seize funds from the payor’s bank, report overdue support to credit agencies and suspend licenses including occupational, driver’s and recreational.

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There are many options available to ensure support payments are being made. Income withholding is standard with most support orders. This will allow the support payments to be deducted directly from the payor’s income. Domestic Relations will send an income withholding order to the employer for implementation. If there is upwards of a fifteen (15) day delay in receiving payment, contempt proceedings can be initiated by Domestic Relations or the party receiving support. Overdue support, or arrears, will begin to accumulate with each late or missed payment. The court can unilaterally increase the monthly support award to account for the growing arrears in an attempt to help bring the account current again.

Several other remedies can be imposed to attempt collection of support. The court can seize any lump sum payments due to the payor including unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, insurance settlements, Social Security retirement or disability benefits, and other public or private retirement funds. The court can put liens against real property to cloud title, suspend a driver’s, occupational, or recreational license, and report the amount owed such that it could affect your credit score. The court can even seize assets from a financial institution such as a bank. Some remedies do require advance notice to the payor regarding the action to be taken. Establishing a repayment schedule does not necessarily safeguard a payor from imposition of the remedies listed.

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23 Pa. C.S. 5323 (f) provides that any custody order should have sufficient detail to enable the parties to understand what they are obligated to do and for law enforcement authorities to be able to assist in enforcement where appropriate. Section (g) discusses the consequences for violation of an established custody order. “A party who willfully fails to comply with any custody order may be adjudged in contempt. Contempt shall be punishable by any one or more of the following: (i) imprisonment for a period not more than six months; (ii) a fine of not more than $500; (iii) probation for a period of not more than six months; (iv) an order for nonrenewal, suspension or denial of operating privilege; and/or (iv) counsel fees.” 23 PA. C.S. 5323 (g).

As the statute is worded, every technical violation of a custody order should not be punished as contempt. Instead, the statute refers to parties who willfully fail to comply. This would suggest a showing of bad faith on the part of the non-compliant party. There are last minute changes or emergencies that occur in life which could disrupt a custody schedule. Infrequent instances would not be grounds for the punishment contemplated by the statute. However, parties who frequently and repeatedly disobey the court order may face some of the sanctions provided. Counsel fees are a popular sanction where the parties are represented with imprisonment being the most extreme sanction for a custody matter.

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Oftentimes when you have a custody agreement, your agreement or order spells out specific times and meeting places for custody exchanges. Even the best crafted custody agreement, however, does not contemplate every situation that possibly could arise.  In these circumstances, you must often make a judgement call.  For example, if your child is burning up with a fever, it may not be in the best interest of your child to insist that they return to you for your designated custodial time.  You may want to consider your child and let them rest until they are up for travel.  With winter upon us, you may also find yourself required by your custody order to exchange your child in the middle of a snowstorm, or worse, blizzard.  Again, you should use your best judgement in deciding whether to follow the custody agreement.  This is why it is very important that parents be able to communicate with each other.  Oftentimes, you will need to make accommodations for the other parent.  You cannot expect a custody agreement or court order to resolve every possible scenario.  

For those parents with an ex who threatens the police or court if the custody agreement is not followed when one of these emergency circumstances arise, I would suggest that you still exercise your best judgement.  As long as it is a true emergency and you are no abusing the system and alleging your child is sick when in fact that are perfectly fine, it is not likely that you will be found in contempt but be prepared to prove it just in case. Take a photo of your child’s temperature, get a copy of the weather report for your area.  Always put the safety of your child and well being of your child first in an emergency circumstance.  That being said, it may be a good idea if the other parent misses time due to snow or an illness that you offer make up time.  The more you give, the more you get.  Mother nature does not play favorites and it could easily happen on your time.

There are numerous consequences that stem from the failure to pay child support. One possibility is that you will be denied a U.S. passport. If you owe $2,500 or more in child support, you are not eligible to receive a U.S. passport. If you discover your eligibility is affected due to past due child support you must first contact the Domestic Relations section that handles your case to clear the balance. After having resolved any outstanding balance, it generally takes an additional 2-3 weeks before your application for a passport will be able to be processed.

Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.20 details other remedies that may be imposed for the failure to pay child support. These remedies include seizing periodic or lump sum payments, imposing liens on real property, seizing assets held in financial institutions, reducing and executing a judgment, initiating contempt proceedings, reporting past due amounts to consumer reporting agencies and suspending occupational, commercial/driver’s and recreational licenses. Once you become behind on child support the goal for purposes of enforcement is to collect any past due amount as quickly as possible. This is true even if a payment plan is agreed to between the parties and/or by the court.

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Be it divorce, custody or support, once a court order is put in place, any violation of that court order can be considered contempt. For example, if a custody order provides that the parents are to exchange custody every Wednesday and the exchange never occurs to the fault of one party, the faulting party is in contempt. The consequences of being held in contempt can vary. 23 Pa. C.S. 5323 (g) regarding contempt of custody provides for any one of the following as punishment: imprisonment for a period not to exceed six months, a fine not to exceed $500, probation for a period not to exceed six months; and/or counsel fees and costs. In practice, based on the severity of the case, the Judge may just give a verbal warning or may suspend custody until the court order is complied with.

Contempt of a support order occurs when a party fails to keep up with their support hearing. At a support contempt hearing, the non-compliant party will have an opportunity to explain why they are not current with their support. In the event they are unemployed, the court may inquire into why they are not working, their physical ability or inability to work, and what attempts to find employment have been made. There may be contempt of an order in a divorce matter both while the divorce is still pending and after the divorce. For example, if one party succeeds in getting exclusive possession of the home during the divorce and the other party attempts to re-enter the home, there is a basis for contempt. Post-divorce contempt usually involves one party failing to follow through with their obligations under a settlement agreement or divorce judgment.

 

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.