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Support Law in Pennsylvania

The person filing for support is called the plaintiff (payee) and the person ordered to pay the support is called the defendant (payor).

Who is entitled to file for support?

Anyone who is raising children – parents, grandparent, a county child welfare agency — can file for child support against one or both of the parents. The child must be under age 18 or still in high school. The court may also award child support for a special needs child over the age of 18. One parent can seek child support from the other parent regardless of the financial situation of each parent. A non-marital child is just as entitled to child support as a child born during the marriage.

The plaintiff can file for spousal support as long as the plaintiff’s income, earning capacity, and general financial situation is less than that of the defendant. The plaintiff must be married to the defendant. If the parties are still living together, the court will not order the defendant to pay spousal support unless the defendant is not providing for the plaintiff’s basic necessities, such as food, shelter, and clothing.

How does the plaintiff file for support?

The exact procedure can vary by county. First, go to the local Domestic Relations Office. Domestic Relations will prepare the support complaint and file it. The plaintiff does not have to hire an attorney or pay any filing fee to file for support. The complaint for support can be filed in the county where the defendant lives or works or in the county where the plaintiff lives. NLS has a handout on when and where to file and tips for preparing for the support conference.

What happens after the Complaint for Support is filed?

The exact procedure can vary by county. Domestic Relations subpoenas earnings information from the plaintiff’s and defendant’s employers. They then will schedule a support conference and will notify both parties of the conference. The support conference is usually held a few weeks after the complaint is filed. The support order, however, can be made retroactive to the date the support complaint was filed. The defendant will then owe back support, called arrearages, which the defendant must make payments on.

What happens at the support conference?

Usually, the only people present are the domestic relations officer or hearing officer, the two parties, and their attorneys. Friends and relatives usually are not allowed in the conference room unless they are going to testify. The support conference officer will review the earnings information from the employers and the income and expense sheets. The plaintiff should provide information regarding child care, private school tuition, extracurricular activities of the children, and mortgage payments that the plaintiff makes. The support officer will usually suggest how much support should be paid, based upon a formula created by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Both parties or their attorneys will have an opportunity to state why they believe the amount of support should be higher or lower.

If the parties can agree on a figure, the conference officer will have the parties sign a consent order. If the parties cannot agree, Allegheny County usually follows a two step process. First, a hearing will be held in front of a hearing officer who will prepare an interim (temporary) order, which may contain a wage attachment. A copy of the interim order will be sent to both parties with notice that either party may within 20 days after the mailing date file an appeal (“exceptions”). If neither party appeals, the interim order will become final. If one party appeals, the parties will submit legal briefs and an argument will be held in a couple months, but the parties must obey the interim order in the meantime. Other counties may follow a different procedure.

How is the amount of support determined?

Support is based upon the reasonable needs of the child or of the spouse seeking support and upon the reasonable ability of the defendant to pay. Even an unemployed person can be ordered to pay support unless that person is unable to work due to a disability. The defendant will ordinarily not be relieved of a support obligation by voluntarily quitting work or by being fired for cause. If the defendant does not have the ability to earn more than $931 per month, the defendant may not have to pay any support, unless his or her living expenses are low.

The formula created by the PA Supreme Court is a starting point for deciding how much support should be paid. It is based upon the idea that the child of separated or divorced parents should receive the same proportional benefit from the parental income that he or she would have received if the parents lived together.

Here are some reasons that may result in a higher or lower order:

  1. The children have special, extraordinary expenses, such as medical expenses or private school tuition.
  2. The parties share physical custody equally.
  3. One party has unusually low living expenses because he or she shares living expenses with someone else.
  4. The defendant has extraordinary expenses such as high medical bills, is supporting other children, or is paying most of the marital debts. Sometimes defendants try to lower their support obligations by incurring lots of debt for luxuries, like a new car or new stereo. The hearing officer usually ignores such expenses. The needs of a child or dependant spouse come first.

What about medical bills?

The defendant can be ordered to list the spouse and children on any medical insurance available through the defendant’s employer at a reasonable cost or a percentage of the annual premium. The defendant may also be ordered to pay a percentage of uninsured, unreimbursed medical expenses exceeding $250 per year.

What happens if the defendant denies paternity?

Sometimes the court will not listen to a denial of paternity, such as in those cases where the parties were married and still together when the child was conceived or in cases where a man treated a child as his own for a long time. In other cases where the man denies paternity, the court can order the parties and the child to go to a lab which will take a drop of saliva from each and analyze the DNA. If the DNA tests show that the man is the father, he may be ordered to pay for the lab tests, which can be expensive.

Can a support order be changed?

Yes. Either party can ask Domestic Relations to schedule a modification conference if circumstances have changed.

How are support orders enforced?

A wage attachment can be issued so that the support payment comes directly out of the defendant’s paycheck. Domestic Relations can intercept tax refunds, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, and lottery winnings. If the payments are more than 30 days late, the plaintiff can ask Domestic Relations to file contempt charges. A defendant who willfully fails to pay can be fined and/or imprisoned. A defendant who is more than three months behind in support payments can lose various state licenses, such as a driver’s license, hunting license, a fishing license, or a professional license. If the plaintiff hires an attorney to help with the contempt action, the court can order the defendant to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees. The plaintiff can ask the sheriff to sell the defendant’s belongings (such as a house or car) to collect back support.

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