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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.

Each party’s income is relevant in the context of a support action. Pennsylvania can assign an earning capacity for parties who are voluntarily unemployed or underemployed. There are recognized exceptions to avoid having income imputed if you do not work. One of those exceptions is if you are physically incapable of working. In the event that a party in a support matter asserts an inability to work due to medical issues, the support rules require that a physician verification form be completed. Pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure (Pa. R.C.P.) 1910.29 (b), the physician verification form should be completed by the party’s physician and submitted at the time of the support conference. A sample of the actual form to be used is contained in Pa.R.C.P. 1910.29(b)(3).

If the support matter does not settle at the conference and a hearing will be necessary, the physician verification form can be admitted into evidence if certain requirements are met. First, the party intending to use the physician verification form must serve a copy on the other side within 20 days from the conference date. The other party then has 10 days from receipt of the physician verification form to file an objection. If no objection is received, the form may be accepted into evidence without requiring the physician’s testimony. If an objection is made, the physician would need to testify in court and the court would determine how the cost of the testimony will be divided among the parties.

If a party receives Social Security disability or workers’ compensation benefits, proof of income from those sources would be submitted in lieu of the physician verification form. The amount of Social Security disability or workers’ compensation is treated as income for support purposes and utilized for any applicable support calculations in their case.

It is not uncommon for parties contemplating divorce to try to hide assets in an attempt to keep them out of the marital estate that will be up for distribution. One of the biggest red flags as far as potential hidden assets is if the spending habits or lifestyle of a party is way more than would be expected based on their reported income. You should also be wary of a party who owns their own business. If they deal in cash they can easily hide money. Additionally, what they report for tax purposes is not always indicative of income available for spousal or child support. It complex cases it may become necessary to hire an expert to analyze income flow. Top level executives may receive different forms of income. Examples include stock options, bonuses, car allowances, and deferred compensation plans. Even military members often have a compensation package that goes beyond their base salary.

Discovery is a good start in seeking to track down assets, hidden or otherwise. Tax returns and bank statements are good to review in terms of sources of income as well as where the income is going. A tax return can show rental income, interest on bank accounts, dividends on stock, etc. Bank statements can show any transfers of money and identify where it went to. Parties can subpoena documents directly from the custodian of the documents if the spouse will not cooperate and turn them over. If these initial avenues of discovery do not yield the desired results, a party will have to make a decision as to whether to invest more money in the chase for hidden assets. Any party that anticipates hiding or dissipating assets may become a problem during the pendency of the divorce should obtain a court injunction right away preventing the dissipation or transfer of any marital assets.

Supplemental Security income (SSI) is cash assistance to individuals who are disabled or over 65 years old. SSI can be payable to disabled children as well. Living arrangements may affect the amount of SSI received. You should report changes in living arrangements to the Social Security office. Similarly, relationship status may affect the amount of the benefit received. For example, the amount may be decreased following marriage depending on the income of the new spouse. If marrying another individual who receives SSI, the benefit may be converted from an individual benefit to a couple’s benefit.

Any other income or windfalls may also affect the payment. The changes may be temporary in the event of a one-time payment or more permanent in the event of employment. Payments may increase every year to account for cost of living adjustments. SSI is not be considered income for purposes of a support calculation. This is because SSI is a federal means-tested benefit. It operates as a welfare benefit. It is not meant to replace lost earnings but instead to provide some income to disabled people who would otherwise be poverty-stricken. Even though SSI cannot be considered, if a party is otherwise capable of working, income from employment can still be considered for a support award.

Click here to read more about income for support.

Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits are payable to individuals who have a long-term disability that limits their ability to earn income. The disability payments are meant to replace the income the recipient would have received if they had not become disabled. Essentially, disability payments have been pre-paid by the recipient during their employment. Accordingly, the recipient must have a sufficient earnings history, or in other words have paid social security long enough, to be eligible for payments. Your benefit will remain the same whether you are single or married. The issue of social security disability benefits may arise in the context of a support action. Social security disability benefits are recognized as a source of income pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.16-2. Accordingly, a support order may require payment of a portion of the benefit received.

Benefits may also be payable to the children of the disabled party. Where child support is being calculated and the child(ren) at issue are receiving their own social security benefit, the amount of their benefit also must be accounted for in the support calculation. PA RCP 1910.16-2(b) goes into detail about the treatment of benefits received by the children in the context of support. The child’s benefit should be added to the net income of the parents for determining what the basic child support award should be based on the state guidelines. The amount of child support based on the support guidelines is then reduced by the amount of the child’s benefit. After the reduction, the appropriate support award would be calculated after considering each parent’s share of the support obligation based on their income, as well as other relevant factors such as health insurance costs and custody.

Click here to read more about child support.

Pensions already in pay status at the time of separation require additional considerations in a divorce matter. The pensions can still be divided as a marital asset however the method of valuing the total value of the pension for distribution is altered. This is because often elections for survivor benefits are made at the time the benefits commence and are usually irrevocable. Accordingly, any survivor benefit should be valued separately and set against the value of the pension itself. Pensions in pay status also present a unique issue when it comes to support.

Based on the case law established in Pennsylvania it is impermissible to use a monthly pension benefit as income available for support and also divide the pension itself as an asset in equitable distribution. This was made clear in Cerny v. Cerny, 440 Pa. Super. 550 (1995) and reiterated in Rohrer v. Rohrer ,715 A.2d 463 (1998). This same rule extends beyond just monthly pension benefits as evidenced by the fact pattern in Cerny. There, Husband had received a lump sum payment from his employer following termination. The lump sum was split as an asset and the figure received was also the basis for income available with respect to the support award. Husband was successful in appealing the decision such that the payment was only considered for support purposes and deemed a separate asset for equitable distribution purposes.

Click here to read more on equitable distribution.

Social Security benefits may count as income depending on the nature of the benefits be received. For that purpose, it is important to differentiate the types of Social Security benefits to ensure an appropriate support calculation. Social Security disability (SSD) benefits are counted as income. The disability payments are meant to replace the income the recipient would have received if they had not become disabled. Essentially, disability payments have been pre-paid by the recipient during their employment. Accordingly, the recipient must have a sufficient earnings history, or in other words have paid social security long enough, to be eligible for payments.

In addition to the recipient receiving a benefit, their children can also receive a derivative benefit. The derivative benefit can be set up to be paid directly to the primary custodian of the children if the recipient does not exercise primary custody. Disability payments are retroactive to the date the disability was established so there could be a lump sum payment initially. Both the amount received by the recipient and the amount on behalf of the children as a derivative benefit should be factored into in support calculation.

Social Security income (SSI) is not be considered income for purposes of a support calculation. SSI is a federal means-tested benefit. It operates as more of a welfare benefit similar to cash assistance or food stamps. It is not meant to replace lost earnings but instead to provide some income to disabled people who would otherwise be poverty-stricken. Even though SSI cannot be considered, if the parent is otherwise capable of working, income from employment can still be considered for a support award.

Click here to read more on calculating child support.