Child Support

Who is liable for paying child support? Both parents are responsible to contribute to the support of their minor children to the their earning capacities and financial resources. Child support is a priority obligation, and a parent is expected to meet this obligation by adjusting his or her other expenses. A parent’s duty to support his or her child continues until the child reaches eighteen years of age or graduates from high school, whichever occurs later. A parent may be required to support an adult child who is incapable of self-support due to a physical or mental disability. A parent is not required to contribute to a child’s college education expenses unless he or she has contractually obligated himself or herself to do so.

How is child support calculated? Child support is generally determined by the support guidelines published by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The support guidelines are revised periodically, at least every few years. The support guidelines contain a table to calculate the proper amount of child support, based upon the parents’ net monthly incomes or earning capacities. If the parents’ combined net monthly income exceeds the limits of the support guidelines (presently $20,000 per month), the amount of child support is determined by analyzing the child’s reasonable needs. A spouse’s net monthly income is equal to his or her gross monthly income from all sources, less federal, state and local income taxes, FICA taxes, union dues, mandatory retirement contributions, and alimony paid to the other spouse. Voluntary payroll deductions, such as charitable contributions, credit union deductions, savings bonds, and voluntary retirement contributions are not deducted from gross income.

How does custody affect child support? The basic child support award may be reduced where the non-custodial parent exercises custody for more than 40% of the time. The percentage of time is determined by the number of overnights that each parent has custody.  In addition to the basic child support award, the non-custodial parent must contribute his or her proportionate share of the child’s health insurance premiums, unreimbursed medical, dental and optical expenses exceeding $250 per year per child, and child care expenses. Additionally, the non-custodial parent may be responsible for his or her share of private school tuition, summer camp expenses, tutoring, sports or arts lessons, or other special needs, if such expenses are reasonable in light of the parents’ incomes and station in life. These obligations are added to the basic amount of child support.

What discretion does the court have? There is a rebuttable presumption that the amount of child support determined under the support guidelines is the proper amount. The amount of child support determined under the support guidelines may be increased or reduced if one of the parents can demonstrate unusual needs, fixed obligations, or other reasons that justify deviation from the support guidelines. The child support rules provide nine factors that a court may consider in its decision to increase or decrease the basic child support award.

How does Pennsylvania enforce child support orders? Pennsylvania employs a state-wide computerized child support collection system, known as PACSES (Pennsylvania Automated Child Support Enforcement System). All child support orders are enforced by wage attachment unless the recipient agrees to waive the wage attachment.  Even then, the payor must send child support to a central agency in Harrisburg, not directly to the other parent. If child support arrears exist, PACSES may take enforcement action, such as increasing the wage attachment, intercepting the payor’s IRS refund, establishing a lien against the payor’s property, or suspending the payor’s drivers license, hunting or fishing license, or professional license.

A child support obligation begins to run when the action is filed, even though the hearing may be held several weeks later. If the payor does not make any payments until the hearing, child support arrears may accrue for several weeks, triggering possible enforcement action. For this reason, the payor may wish to make voluntary payments before the hearing. Generally, the court will grant credit for an obligor’s voluntary payments if receipts are produced at the hearing.

Is child support fixed? A parent may request modification of child support where there has been a material and substantial change in circumstances, such as a change in custody or a parent’s income. Modification is generally retroactive to the date on which the request for modification is filed. Where a parent seeks modification because the child has turned 18 and graduated from high school, however, the modification is generally retroactive to the date of the child’s emancipation.

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