When divorcing or determining child custody, one of the challenges can be the amount of child and/or spousal support. In an ideal world, the two sides have a conversation, reach an agreement, and go on with their lives.
When money and people's standard of living – and especially their child's standard of living – are involved, however, it's not unusual for the two sides to have difficulty reaching an agreement. Whether spouses cannot agree on spousal support for one partner or if parents disagree about how much child support one parent pays, Pennsylvania has laws and procedures to help reach an agreement.
In Beaver County, the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas and its Domestic Relations Office handle matters of child and spousal support. While parents or former spouses do not have to have legal representation for child or spousal support, an attorney can help guide them through the process. Lawyers can help their clients focus on the facts and logic rather than the emotions that often, and understandably, attach to such matters.
Beaver County has a higher rate of marriage than Pennsylvania's average and approximately ten percent of its residents are divorced. This is one reason why the Court of Common Pleas now has a Domestic Relations division to handle issues such as child and spousal support.
In Pennsylvania, individuals must file for support in their county of residence. This is the case even if they work in another county or their former spouse or child's parent resides in another county.
To file for support in Beaver County, individuals must reside in one of the following cities, boroughs, or townships.
- Beaver Falls
- Big Beaver
- East Rochester
- Frankfort Springs
- New Brighton
- New Galilee
- Patterson Heights
- South Heights
- West Mayfield
- New Sewickley
- North Sewickley
- South Beaver
For those who reside in a different county, while many of the laws and processes may be similar, they need to file with that county's Court of Common Pleas. For those who are unsure about where they should file, our Family Law Team can assist clients in determining where they should file.
Expectation of Financial Support
Child support and spousal support, or alimony, have similar goals in providing financial security but differ in the details. Child support is based on the idea that a parent has a financial obligation to their child. In very general terms, spousal support is more arbitrary than child support, which, while not mandatory, is more common.
Child support involves one parent paying a set amount to the other parent for the child's upkeep. This usually extends until a child is 18, although courts may opt to extend child support payments in certain circumstances.
Spousal support, or alimony, provides a financial foundation to one spouse following separation or divorce. Courts consider numerous factors when determining whether spousal support is necessary. Alimony may last for a set period of time, indefinitely, or until certain events occur, such as remarriage or obtaining a job.
Unless they legally sever their relationship, parents have an obligation to provide financial support to their child. This obligation has nothing to do with whether parents were married at any point, although child support commonly comes up during divorce proceedings.
Pennsylvania uses a measurement system to determine child support payments. Parents' income and the number of children affect the basic, of ground-level expectation of support. The Pennsylvania Code lists a variety of factors that may be considered when determining child support. These include:
- Each parents' income, including non-wage sources
- A child's age
- Each parent's assets and liabilities
- A child's standard of living
- A child's medical expenses, especially if a child has a disability or health condition
- Any unusual needs
- Other relevant factors, such as:
- Health insurance costs
- Child care costs
- Education costs
- Extracurricular costs
One goal of child support is to put parents on similar footing and ensure a child has similar experiences with both parents. As much as possible, courts want to dissuade a parent from using their better economic position to alienate a child from the other parent. The overall goal, similar to child custody, is what is in a child's best interests.
The state has a separate rule for child support for high-income parents. Pennsylvania defines high-income as a combined monthly income exceeding $30,000 a month, or $360,000 a year. In this situation, the minimum for each child is higher, with the expectation of an additional 4% of the monthly income above $30,000.
Parents can get an estimate of their expected child support costs. Pennsylvania provides a child support calculator but emphasizes it is a generic number that does not take into account the specifics of a parent or child's circumstances.
In child custody cases, if one parent is unsure where the other parent lives or is located, the Domestic Relations Section will help parents locate the missing parent. Parents will need to provide as much relevant information as they can about the other parent; the DRS may use the State and/or Federal Parent Locate Systems.
Pennsylvania can help locate parents even if that parent is not located in the state. In cases when one parent resides in a different state, the laws of the other state may come into play regarding child support. This includes situations when one parent is a member of the military: Service personnel are held to the same standards as civilians, although situations involving the military may take longer to resolve.
If and when one parent is unable to locate the other parent or if the other parent resides out of state, the Family Law Team can help their clients gather information and navigate the various laws to ensure their child receives the financial support they require.
Failure to Pay Child Support
If and when a parent fails in their child support obligations, Pennsylvania has several ways to encourage payment and ensure a child continues to have the financial support they need.
Nonpayment of child support may result in the following actions:
- Income-withholding orders
- Bank account seizure
- Civil contempt
- Fines, probation and/or time in jail
- Seizing of:
- Personal injury and/or works compensation awards
- Lottery winnings
- Federal and state tax refunds
- Suspending of:
- Driver's license
- Professional and occupational licenses
- Recreation licenses, including hunting and fishing
- Denial of passport
- Passport Denial
- Property liens
- Reports to credit bureaus
That a parent is not in Pennsylvania does not exempt them from either child support payments or any of the above actions. If necessary, Pennsylvania will work with other state authorities to ensure a parent continues with their child support obligations or face any of the above actions.
Spousal Support, or Alimony
One of the challenges with spousal support is that it's based on the circumstances of the marriage. This is good because this flexibility acknowledges that marriages or families are unique and often do not fit into a set box. This flexibility also presents challenges because financial support isn't always a cut-and-dry issue.
- The length of the marriage
- The spouse's ages
- Each spouse's current earnings and earning capacity
- Each spouse's current sources of income, including investment and retirement income
- Any expectations of inheritance
- Whether either spouse contributed to the other spouse's education
- The standard of living during the marriage
- How childcare may affect either spouse's earning capacity
- What education or training the spouse seeking alimony may require or need to enter / re-enter the workforce
- The contributions spouses made to the home, such as one staying at home to care for children
- Any marital misconduct by either spouse prior to separation
- Each spouse's separate property
- Whether the spouse seeking alimony is capable of working
Income disparity alone may not be sufficient to award spousal support.
One commonly cited example of spousal support is when a couple divorces and one spouse has been a stay-at-home parent. In this case, spousal support is provided to give the former stay-at-home parent financial help to re-enter the workforce. If the stay-at-home spouse has significant property or investments, such as a trust fund or investment property, a court is less likely to award them spousal support of alimony.
Types of Spousal Support
Pennsylvania recognizes three types of spousal support or alimony. They are:
- Alimony pendente lite, which is paid while the divorce is in progress
- Post-divorce alimony, which is after the divorce is final
- Equitable reimbursement
Of the three, equitable reimbursement is not alimony in the traditional sense of assisting the financially-disadvantaged spouse. Courts may order equitable reimbursement when one spouse has paid tuition and supported the other spouse during their education or training, and the couple divorces when one spouse is still in school or has not yet realized an increase in income. The goal of equitable reimbursement is, as the name suggests, to reimburse the financial cost to the spouse who assumed the financial burden.
A commonly given example of equitable reimbursement is when a spouse financially supports their spouse through medical school and residency only for the spouse to end the marriage as soon as they become a doctor. One reason this is used as a frequent example is because the time and money necessary to complete medical school are significant. One reason people sink years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort is that doctors are the highest earners in Pennsylvania.
For those who wish to claim equitable reimbursement, they'll need to show their financial contribution, including how this support financially disadvantaged them, such as limiting their ability to save for retirement and their former spouse's earning potential.
For all types of spousal support, the spouse requesting alimony needs to show why they require support in the short- or long-term. The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team helps clients navigate both equitable reimbursement and spousal support.
The Beaver County Court of Common Pleas's Domestic Relation branch handles all issues relating to spousal and child support. The office managers both establish and enforce support orders.
The office has four full-time Client Service Representatives to answer questions and provide information. While Client Service Representatives provide a useful and needed service, individuals should not confuse them with attorneys. These representatives will not represent people or help them build a case: They're available simply to provide information on topics such as the law or procedure.
As of 2020, Beaver County, to conform to state law, no longer accepts over-the-counter payments. All fees must be paid at a kiosk outside the Domestic Relations office.
Appeals and Modifications
When a court orders a support agreement, that agreement is not set in stone. Either party may appeal the agreement. Even if both parties initially support an agreement, they may file to modify the agreement. Either parents or spouses may also return to court to enforce an agreement or, as mentioned above, to help locate an individual who has stopped making support payments.
Either party may file to increase or decrease support payments. A common reason for a change is if either party loses their job or faces a reduction in their income. While parents or former spouses may agree to modify an agreement informally, they should still have a court sign-off on the change to make it legally binding.
Why You Need an Attorney
Child support and alimony can significantly impact everyone involved, for good and for bad. Whether an initial agreement or modifying an existing agreement, what evidence a parent or former spouse presents can affect how much they pay or how much they receive.
The LLF Law Firm works with families throughout Pennsylvania, from informal, out-of-court agreements to going to court to protect our clients' interests. If you have or need child support or alimony, contact the Family Law Team at the LLF Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or online.