Tag Archive for: support guidelines

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.

23 Pa C.S. Section 4321 provides that married persons are liable for the support of their spouse according to their respective abilities to provide and parents are liable for the support of their unemancipated children under 18 years of age. Domestic Relations is the branch of the court that handles support applications. An application for support can be filed with their office in the county where you reside or where the payor resides. An application can also be initiated online through the support program website. Support between spouses is based on the difference in income. 40% of the difference in income can be awarded in a case where there are no children. 30% of the difference in income is appropriate where there is also a child support component. Child support in Pennsylvania is based on statewide guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The guidelines are based on an “Income Shares Model” such that the guideline amount is shared by the parties based on percentage of custody time as well as percentage of income.

Once an application for support is filed a conference is scheduled. Both parties are instructed to bring relevant documentation to the hearing including pay stubs, last filed tax return/W-2, proof of health insurance coverage and costs, childcare expenses, etc. At the conference an officer will use the income information to complete a calculation and advise of the support award. If there are any issues concerning incomes or expenses or the suggested amount of support, the parties have the option to request a hearing for further review. Though it may take several weeks to get to the conference following submission of an application for support, support awards are retroactive to the date of filing so that applicants can receive support for that time despite the wait for a court date.

Pennsylvania utilizes support guidelines to determine the appropriate amount of basic support in each case. The Rules of Civil Procedure also contemplate other expenses that can be added to a support calculation. Child care expenses as needed to allow for employment can be added to the support award. The total amount of child care expenses should be adjusted to reflect the federal child care tax credit if applicable. Health insurance premiums that provide coverage for children and/or the other party can be allocated between the parties’ in proportion to their income. This is only applicable where a party is paying a portion of the premium as opposed to a scenario where the employer covers the full cost or a third party is providing the coverage.

Private school tuition can be added to a support order. Generally, parties should agree on private school costs prior to seeking to have them included in their support order. If a child always attended private school prior to parties separating, they will likely be permitted to continue in private school. If a child has not previously attended private school, whether or not they should now be permitted to is more of a legal custody question that should be dealt with in custody court prior to any inclusion in a support order. Summer camp pay also be added to the support award. These additional expenses are allocated between the parties in proportion to their income. Parties with comparable incomes would each pay roughly 50% of these added costs. Alternatively, in a scenario where there is a significant disparity income, the party earning more will pay a greater share of these added costs.

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Once a support order is established each party is under a continuing obligation to notify the court of any changes income, employer or employment status. Changes income may impact the support order under the guidelines as the amount of support varies based on the income bracket the parties fall into. A reduction income does not necessarily mean the support order will change. The court can consider the reason behind the reduction income. A voluntary reduction income should have no effect on the support order. Voluntary reductions income are defined as a party taking a lower paying job, quitting or leaving a job, changing occupations or returning to school or being fired for cause. The purpose behind this provision is to make sure parties cannot benefit from attempts to escape or lower their support obligation.

A non-voluntary reduction in support may result in a change to the support award. Non-voluntary reduction income may result from a lay-off, illness, termination or job elimination. These are circumstances which the party has no control over. Even a party who faces a non-voluntary reduction income should take steps to resume employment as soon as possible. Prolonged failure to obtain employment can result in an earning capacity being imputed. Earning capacity is determined based on a party’s age, education, training, and prior work experience and earnings. For a party with limited or no prior work experience, an appropriate earning capacity may be minimum wage full time. For parties who have the skill set and education for a certain type of career, example nurse or IT specialist, the average income of someone in that career in the same geographic region as reflected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics can be useful in determining an appropriate earning capacity.

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Child support in Pennsylvania is based on statewide guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The guidelines are intended to ensure that similarly situated parties are treated similarly. Accordingly, all parties making $3000 per month with 3 kids would pay the same amount of support based on the guideline amounts. The guidelines are based on an “Income Shares Model.” Accordingly, the guideline amount will be based on the combined net monthly income of both parties.

For purposes of support, net income only allows deductions from gross income for taxes, F.I.C.A. payments (i.e. Social Security), non-voluntary retirement payments, mandatory union dues and alimony paid to the other party. Gross income includes all wages, salaries, bonuses, fees, commissions, income from business or property, pension and/or other retirement, income from an estate or trust, Social Security disability or retirement benefits, temporary and permanent disability payments, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, alimony payments, and all other entitlements to money or lump sum awards.

The guideline amount looks at the combined monthly net income for both parents and the number of children. The child support award is then determined based on any applicable custody schedule and the proportion of income comprising the guideline amount. Additional expenses can be added in such as health insurance costs, child care costs, summer camp, private school tuition and unreimbursed medical expenses. These expenses will also be split between the parties in proportion to their income.

Alimony Pendente Lite, or APL, is spousal support while the divorce is pending. A party may petition for APL at the same time as the divorce complaint or any time thereafter prior to the entry of a final decree. The purpose of APL is to ensure each party has the ability to sustain themselves during the divorce. A party seeking APL should be ready to prove they lack sufficient property to provide for their reasonable means and are financially unable to support themself during the pendency of the divorce litigation. It is the income-dependent spouse who would have the opportunity to receive APL.

Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure (Pa. R.C.P.) 1910.16-1(c) addresses awards for spousal support and/or APL and requires the court to also consider the duration of the marriage in making any award. This is to ensure one party does not benefit from a significant support award in the context of a very short marriage. Additionally, it provides that an award for spousal support and an award for APL cannot be in effect at the same time.

Pa. R.C.P. 1910.1-4 lays out the calculation to be used in determining an award. In a case with children, the APL award will be based on a 30% difference of the parties’ net incomes and will account for the child support obligations of the case when factoring the net incomes. In a case without children, the APL award will be based on a 40% difference of the parties’ net incomes. An award of APL is not appealable until after the divorce is final. The reason for that being that APL is not considered a “final order” as is required before an appeal can be taken.

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Section 4321 of the Domestic Relations laws provides that married persons are liable for the support of each other according to their respective abilities to provide support as provided by law. Similar to child support, spousal support will be calculated based on a statewide guideline. Without children, spousal support is 40% of the difference of the net incomes of the parties. If there is also a child support order, spousal support will only be 30% of the difference of the net incomes.

One longstanding exception to the duty to pay spousal support is where the spouse seeking support has engaged in conduct that would constitute grounds for a fault-based divorce. The fault grounds under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code include: (1) willful and malicious desertion without reasonable cause for at least one year; (2) adultery; (3) cruel and barbarous treatment of an injured and innocent spouse; (4) bigamy; (5) imprisonment for at least two years after conviction of a crime; and (6) indignities to the innocent and injured spouse which makes that spouse’s condition intolerable and life burdensome.

Many cases have touched on the issue of whether spousal support is appropriate due to alleged existence of another relationship outside of the marriage. It is up to the spouse who is objecting to a spousal support award to prove a fault ground for divorce by clear and convincing evidence. Adultery is defined as voluntary sexual intercourse with a person other than his/her spouse. Alternatively, indignities may be established even when the evidence does not necessarily support adultery. “Indignities may consist of vulgarity, unmerited reproach, habitual contumely, studied neglect, intentional incivility, manifest disdain, abusive language, malignant ridicule, and every other plain manifestation of settled hate and estrangement.” A single act by a spouse will not support a finding of indignities. Instead, it must be a course of conduct that renders the life of the innocent party intolerable or burdensome.

Conduct which takes place after separation is generally not relevant, however, such conduct may be introduced if it will go to show the conduct began before separation. In one case, the evidence supported that Wife had not started dating someone new until three days after the divorce complaint was filed. Accordingly, the award for spousal support was appropriate because of the post-separation nature of the relationship. In a different case, the support award was upheld despite Wife’s conduct before separation. The evidence supported Wife’s contention that her relationship with a certain man other than her husband was strictly platonic. Even though she had been spotted with the man several times, there was no evidence that anything that would support fault grounds for divorce had occurred. In the same case, Husband also alleged desertion as a reason why he should not have to pay spousal support. This defense was overcome as well since Wife’s absence from the marital home was justified based on Husband’s emotional abuse. In most cases, there will not be a problem obtaining spousal support, however, parties should be careful of the timing of new relationships.