Separation and divorce can be one of the most stressful periods in the lives of everyone involved, from the divorcing couple to their children to their extended families. Everybody's lives will change; the divorcing couple will be living apart; their kids may have to move, change schools, lose touch with friends, change or drop their activities, and family finances as a whole may be strained.
It's these financial challenges that the family court in Allegheny County will focus on when it issues child and spousal support orders. If one partner in the relationship has been staying at home and is primarily responsible for the daily care of the couple's children, what's going to happen after the divorce? Will the kids still be able to count on that parent being there for them, or will they have to adapt to a daycare or after-school care situation so that both parents can earn enough to pay for shelter, food, clothing, and the other necessities of life?
Fortunately, in many cases, the divorcing couple is able to come to an agreement about how to handle the financial support for the spouses as well as for the children. This is more likely to happen when both sides are guided by experienced family law attorneys who understand what spousal and child support orders need to be addressed and can advise their clients about what can happen if they're unable to come to an agreement.
In cases where the divorcing parties can't agree on support terms, the questions will be left to the Allegheny County family court judge to decide. Either divorcing party can file for spousal or child support using the Pennsylvania Child Support Program website or by mail using forms available on the Allegheny County court website. Another option for child support is to file in person at one of several court locations in the Pittsburgh area. In any case, once the application is received, the court will schedule a hearing to begin the support order process. While support requests can be filed separately from divorce cases, in many cases, the request for support – whether spousal or child or both – is included as part of the divorce complaint and is handled as part of the divorce proceeding. Divorce complaints are filed with the Allegheny County Department of Court Records and not with the Family Court Division.
It is, of course, possible to work your way through spousal and child support requests and even a complete divorce proceeding without the help of an attorney. However, family law in Pennsylvania is complicated, and having the help of one of the experienced family law attorneys from the LLF Law Firm Family Law Tem can be a tremendous help when it comes to making sure you and your children's rights are protected, that you don't miss any important deadlines or filing requirements, and that when the divorce is final, you're in as good a position as possible to move forward with your life.
If, after reviewing this summary of spousal and child support issues for Allegheny County, you have any questions, contact the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team at 888.535.3686 or schedule a confidential consultation with one of our experienced attorneys by using our online contact form.
Expectations of Financial Support
Pennsylvania law requires parents to support their children until the kids turn 18, except in the unusual case where the child is officially emancipated. In some situations where a child has a disability, those support requirements may continue even after the child turns 18. The law also requires divorcing spouses to support each other "according to their respective abilities."
These support obligations can be officially ordered by a court even before a divorce case is filed, with temporary orders being put in place by the court. Then, during the divorce proceeding, the support issues will be addressed and resolved as part of the final divorce decree. Note that Child Support and Spousal Support are two very different things.
- Child Support means payments made by one spouse to another that are to be used to cover the costs of raising the couple's child or children.
- Spousal Support means payments made by one spouse to another to help support the other spouse. They may continue for a set period of time or indefinitely until the order is modified by the judge.
In Allegheny County, child support hearings are conducted before judicial hearing officers, who then make recommendations that can be adopted and put into order by a family court judge. If you disagree with the hearing officer's recommendations, you will have a chance to make your "exceptions" (or disagreements) known to the family court judge, but you must do so within 20 days of the date the hearing officer's recommendation was mailed to you.
Because it's issued by a judge, a child support order is a formal obligation that requires one parent to make certain payments to the other parent. The other parent is to use these payments to help support the couple's child or children. Child support is supposed to cover basics; food, clothing, shelter, medical care, etc. As a practical matter, most child support payments are made by the parent who does not have physical custody of the children to the parent who does. This reflects the reality that the custodial parent is the one who has to pay for the daily needs of the couple's child or children.
How Child Support Is Calculated
Family court judges (and hearing officers) who are considering the amount of a child support order are guided by Pennsylvania law, which establishes a "basic child support obligation" based on the family's combined monthly net income. Other factors will be considered as well, which may lead to an adjustment of this basic obligation number. These factors include:
- How old the child or children are, and what their particular needs might be;
- Special conditions such as health issues or physical disabilities that any of the children may have;
- Income other than regular monthly income that either spouse may have, such as income from investments or real estate;
- What the custodial spouse earns and what assets that spouse has;
- Any other financial obligations that either spouse has, in particular, the spouse making the child support payments, including whether that spouse is also making spousal support payments.
With all of that, the main thing that the judge or hearing officer will focus on when making a child support determination is what is in the best interests of the child or children. That factor is supposed to be the primary consideration when a judge issues a child support order. It is frequently cited when a judge deviates from the minimum amounts required by Pennsylvania law.
How Long Child Support Lasts
Pennsylvania law requires child support to continue for each child until that child turns 18. This can be extended in cases where the child has health issues that require continuing care and where the child is unable to pay for that care themselves.
The purpose of spousal support is to help a spouse who is financially dependent on the other spouse to continue to have enough to live on during the divorce proceedings and, in some cases, after the divorce becomes final. There are several types of spousal support; no matter what the name, the purpose is basically the same.
Types of Spousal Support
There are three types of spousal support in Pennsylvania. What they're called depends on the stage of the separation or divorce proceedings.
- Spousal support is the term used to describe payments made by one spouse to help the other meet their regular living expenses. It can be put in place during the time when the couple is legally separated; but it will end when the divorce decree becomes final.
- Alimony Pendente Lite (APL) is awarded after the divorce complaint has been filed and is similar to spousal support in that it will end when the final divorce decree is filed. In cases where one party files for divorce (versus when both parties agree to separate), the court may order APL payments during the divorce proceedings.
- Post-Divorce Alimony is ordered in some cases as part of the final divorce decree. In many cases, the purpose of post-divorce alimony is to help the financially-dependent spouse meet some reasonable level of ongoing expenses and to help make sure that the dependent spouse doesn't have to rely on state benefits.
- Other support types include "equitable reimbursement." This can happen where the financially dependent spouse needs additional support to help them complete schooling or training that will enhance their future earning capacity and reduce or eliminate the need for support or alimony.
How Spousal Support Is Calculated
Courts in Allegheny County will follow a set of guidelines set forth in Pennsylvania law when determining whether to award alimony and, if so, how much that will be. There are 17 factors in total that courts are required to consider, including:
- The source of each spouse's income;
- "Marital misconduct" that occurred during the marriage, if any;
- The divorcing parties' "relative earnings and earning capacities;"
- Any inheritances that either spouse may be receiving;
- The age and mental condition of each spouse
Because there are so many factors that can come into play when a court considers an alimony request, the amount of alimony the court may order can vary widely from one case to another.
Court Orders for Child and Spousal Support
As we've noted above, if you're a spouse and you want the Allegheny Family Court to issue a child or spousal support order, you need to request the order through either the Pennsylvania Child Support Program (online) or through the Allegheny County Department of Court Records (by mail). In either case, once the Family Court considers your request and issues an order for either child or spousal support, the other spouse is required to follow that court order. Violation of any court order, including a child or spousal support order, is very serious. In some cases, it can result in criminal charges being filed against the spouse who is supposed to make payments and doesn't.
The Court Process in Allegheny County, PA
Divorce and support proceedings in Allegheny County are heard by the Adult Section of the Family Division of the Court of Common Pleas in Pittsburgh. The court has a Client Services Center and an information line where a Domestic Relations Officer can "provide litigants with procedural information" relating to the case they plan to file or have on file. The court website warns that the DRO won't "provide legal advice or instruct a party as to what he/she should do."
Here are some of the main steps you can expect to encounter if you file for child or spousal support in Allegheny County. Of course, each situation can vary depending on the facts of the case.
Filing for Support in Allegheny County, PA
If you file for divorce, you can include an alimony request in your complaint and don't need to make a separate filing. As we've noted above, divorce complaints are filed separately from child or spousal support requests. Once filed, it will be assigned to a hearing officer, and proceedings will continue from there.
There will be a support conference before a court officer, who will review the information about your income and expenses. If you and your spouse agree on support amounts, this may be the only conference you need to attend (it may be by phone). You'll need to provide the court with documents supporting at least the following: "last 6 months of earnings, childcare and child extracurricular activity expenses, medical cards (front & back)."
If you're scheduled for a hearing before a judicial hearing officer, you'll need to provide the same information, and the hearing will likely be in person. In cases where you can't reach an agreement, you may find yourself before a mediator, who will try to help you and your spouse reach an agreement on support amounts. Where you can't agree, the hearing officer will make a recommendation to the court, which, as noted above, you may object to by filing "exceptions" with the court.
Why You Need an Attorney
The process for applying for and securing a spousal or child support order in Allegheny County is a complicated one. From where and how to file to what documents to have ready to how to make sure your rights are respected, you will benefit by having the help of one of the experienced family law attorneys from the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team. Even in situations where you and your spouse agree on support terms, we can help you both anticipate issues that might arise in the future and plan for them in the support order and in any final divorce decree.
Appealing a Support Decision in Allegheny County, PA
If you disagree with the court's support order in Allegheny County, you can ask the court to reconsider it. You do this by filing a motion, and the best motions have strong reasons to support the request. There are also filing, timing, and service requirements that need to be met if you want the court to review your request. Our attorneys can help you in these kinds of cases, even if we weren't involved in the initial support request that was filed.
Modifying a Court Order
Kids grow, needs change, and support requirements often change with them. But it's dangerous to simply change support payments, even if both spouses agree, without also changing the court's order that directs what the payment amounts should be. If you and your spouse agree to revised support terms, or if you think the terms should be changed, you need to file a motion with the court that is supported by evidence. The court will always be focused on what's in the best interest of the children, so sometimes, your agreement with your spouse may be one that the court disagrees with. If you're working with one of the experienced attorneys from the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team, we will help you anticipate what the court's concerns will be and tailor the motion to address those.
Enforcing a Support Order
A support order is just that: an order issued by a court. Orders can be enforced, and in Pennsylvania, there are a number of ways enforcement can happen. If you're not receiving the payments you're entitled to under the terms of a support order, you need to let the court know about it so that steps can be taken to make sure you get what the order requires. The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team can help you make sure the court's support order is enforced.
Violating a Support Order
Any violation of a support order can be treated as contempt of court. That's why even if you and your spouse agree to change the support amounts from what a support order requires, you should confirm that with the court and make sure the order is modified to reflect the change. Otherwise, you risk being found in contempt, even if you didn't mean to be. It's much safer for you to ask the court to modify its order than it is to make changes without doing so. And, of course, anyone who willfully violates the terms of any court order, including support orders, risks being held in contempt and even prosecuted.
Retain an Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Support Attorney
The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team has decades of experience helping spouses in Allegheny County and all over Pennsylvania navigate the often-confusing process of seeking child and spouse support, filing divorce complaints, and handling all of the issues, such as child custody that can come along with these kinds of situations. We understand how the law works, what the procedures are, and what concerns the court will have when considering spouse and child support requests. We can help you make sure your rights are respected, no matter if you're the spouse asking for support, or the spouse who's being asked to pay.
It's a difficult time for everyone involved; working with our experienced attorneys can help make your life less stressful during this time. Call us today at 888.535.3686 or use our online contact form to set up a confidential consultation. We're here to listen and to help.