If you are going through a separation or divorce, especially one involving children, determining child and/or spousal support can be incredibly stressful. Between the miles of paperwork, negotiations, and hearings--not to mention the heightened emotions involved--the entire process can become nothing short of overwhelming.
If it becomes impossible to reach a mutual agreement concerning child and/or spousal support, the only remaining option is to obtain court-issued support orders. In Berks County, PA, such matters fall under the jurisdiction of the Domestic Relations Office of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas-Family Court. Because of the complexities and stress involved with such cases, it's all too easy to find yourself with a less-than-optimal outcome unless you have an experienced legal team on your side. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team brings a wealth of experience to Pennsylvania family law matters, and they will work to protect your interests and those of your child(ren). To schedule a consultation, call (888) 535-3686 or connect with us online.
Understanding Financial Support as per Pennsylvania Law
Pennsylvania law mandates that separating/divorcing spouses are liable to provide each other with financial support according to their ability. This obligation also extends to any children within the family who are under 18 and, occasionally, those over 18. During divorce or separation proceedings, two forms of financial support may need to be considered: child support and spousal support.
Child support refers to the financial aid given from one spouse to the other to cover the expenses related to raising their children. This assistance ensures that the necessary costs of raising children are adequately met.
Spousal support refers to the financial assistance provided by one spouse to the other during and after divorce proceedings. Its purpose is to ensure financial stability for the recipient and maintain a fair standard of living.
Child Support in Berks County, Pennsylvania
Child support is a legally enforced financial arrangement that requires one parent to contribute to the expenses associated with raising a child. This court-mandated payment plan ensures that both parents fulfill their financial responsibilities toward their child's upbringing. Typically, the non-custodial parent makes these payments to the custodial parent—the parent with whom the child predominantly resides. These payments are intended to cater to the child's basic needs, such as utilities, food, clothing, education, and housing.
Determining Child Support in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, child support amounts are calculated based on a set of predefined criteria. However, bear in mind that the court's final determinations may vary from these criteria as they only serve as a baseline for meeting a child's basic needs.
In determining child support in Berks County, the court will take into account several factors, including:
- The income and assets of both the custodial and non-custodial parents.
- The child's age.
- Any special needs or requirements of the child (e.g., specific health conditions).
- Other income sources in the household, such as investments and rental properties.
- Any additional financial responsibilities of the paying spouse (e.g., if they are also providing spousal support).
Child support payments usually continue until the child reaches 18 (the age of majority in PA), but in certain instances, such as when a child has a severe disability requiring long-term support, payments may continue into adulthood.
Spousal Support in Berks County, Pennsylvania
Spousal support aims to alleviate financial hardship during and after a separation or divorce for a spouse who was dependent on the estranged spouse. While some support arrangements are temporary and last until the divorce is finalized, others provide long-term assistance to the ex-spouse. These arrangements ensure necessary support is provided while upholding clarity and fairness in the process.
Types of Spousal Support
Pennsylvania law acknowledges three main categories of spousal support, each determined by various factors, including the phase of the divorce proceedings:
- Spousal support refers to financial support provided to a financially dependent spouse to assist them in covering essential living expenses and other reasonable costs during the period of separation preceding the formal legal dissolution of marriage.
- Alimony Pendente Lite (APL) refers to temporary financial support that is typically granted when one party initiates divorce proceedings. It serves as a form of temporary spousal support, specifically during the period leading up to the finalization of the divorce, while spousal support is usually granted during the separation phase. It is important to note that only one form of support will be applicable, as a spouse cannot receive both APL and spousal support simultaneously.
- Alimony refers to the provision of ongoing financial support to a dependent spouse following a divorce. The purpose of these payments is to prevent the dependent spouse from relying on state benefits and to assist in meeting their reasonable ongoing expenses. This ensures financial stability and helps maintain a certain standard of living for the recipient.
How Spousal Support Is Determined
There is no guaranteed or pre-calculated amount of spousal support in Pennsylvania, nor is such support automatically awarded. The court has the discretion to grant any of these types of support only if they are deemed reasonable and necessary, based on several factors such as:
- Duration of the marriage.
- Earning capacity of each spouse, which could include their educational qualifications and training.
- Actual income of each spouse.
- Anticipated income (for instance, inheritances).
- Any obstacles preventing a spouse from realizing their earning potential (e.g., due to childcare responsibilities or lack of education).
Given these considerations, the amount of spousal support and alimony payments can vary significantly from case to case, with some awards being considerably higher or lower than others.
Legal Procedures for Child and Spousal Support Orders
When a couple separates, or divorces in Berks County, the spouse in need of support can lodge a petition for child and/or spousal support with the Family Court's Domestic Relations Section (DRS). If this application is approved, a court order will be issued outlining the paying spouse's financial responsibilities, either for child or spousal support. Failure to adhere to the stipulations of this court order can result in serious consequences, including possible criminal charges.
The Process of Seeking Support in Berks County, PA Courts
Berks County maintains specific procedures for processing requests for child and/or spousal support. These cases go through several phases before reaching family court, and the process is designed to avoid litigation whenever feasible. Given the emotional strain and intricacy of these proceedings, you should always consult with an experienced attorney before committing to any support agreement. The Lento Law Firm Team is prepared to guide you throughout the entire process.
Here is a brief description of the support process in Berks County:
Applying for Support
You will not need to apply separately for alimony, as this claim is included in the divorce complaint. However, if you are requesting spousal support, APL, or child support, these applications are submitted through the Domestic Relations Office of the Court of Common Pleas in Berks County, PA. Spouses can file a support request online or in person at:
Berks County Services Center
633 Court Street
Reading, PA 19601
Please be aware that the DRS is a separate office from the one handling divorce, and child custody matters. Those issues are handled in Family Court on the 4th floor of the courthouse.
Upon filing a support petition, the DRS initiates the process by attempting to facilitate an out-of-court agreement between both parties. These negotiations for child and/or spousal support take place during a court conference.
A court-appointed conference officer (CO) oversees the support conference, mediating between the parties to help devise a mutually satisfactory arrangement. Both parties may have their attorneys present during this process. During the conference, both parties will provide evidence of their income and financial needs to the CO. If an agreement is reached, the CO will draft a support order based on the agreement, which both parties will sign. If they cannot reach an agreement, the matter will proceed to a hearing.
If both parties cannot reach an agreement in the support conference, a formal hearing will be scheduled. This hearing takes place on the 7th floor of the Berks County Services Center and will be administered by a Hearing Officer appointed by a Judge. While awaiting the hearing date, the conference offer may issue an interim support order with their recommended support amount.
At the hearing, both sides will appear and present their arguments before the Hearing Officer. It is advised that you be accompanied by your counsel at this hearing. Attendance at this hearing is mandatory; if you are not present, not only will the Hearing Officer make their opinion based only on the other party's testimony, but you could be charged with contempt. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Hearing Officer will present their recommendations to the Judge, who finalizes the support order.
The Importance of Legal Representation for Spousal/Child Support in Berks County
While you can represent yourself in spousal or child support matters in Berks County, PA, your chances of success are significantly higher with an experienced family law attorney representing you for three key reasons:
- A good attorney can apply skilled negotiation to diffuse tensions and assist in an amicable resolution.
- A good attorney can help ensure all paperwork is filed correctly and on time.
- A good attorney can identify aspects of your case that you may have overlooked, thus strengthening your position.
The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team have extensive experience assisting clients with difficult support negotiations in Berks County, and they will work to get you a favorable resolution.
Contesting a Support Order in Berks County, PA
If you don't agree with the terms of the support order, you only have 20 days to file a written exception to the Hearing Officer's findings. Filing this exception will trigger a hearing before a Family Law Judge in what is known as "Argument Court." The Lento Law Firm Team can maximize your chances for a positive outcome, both in filing your paperwork and appearing at the hearing.
Modifying a Support Order
As familial situations and requirements evolve, either party generally has the authority to petition the Family Court for an adjustment of the support order. Such modifications can either amplify or reduce payments, contingent on the specifics. Additionally, both parties can agree mutually to alter alimony or child support payments. However, if you choose this path, you must present the suggested changes to the court for approval. If not, the initial order stays in force, and the payor may risk being accused of violating the order even if the changes were mutually agreed upon.
Enforcing Support Orders in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, courts possess the power to enforce spousal and child support orders if the obligated spouse neglects their payment duties. The judge has several enforcement tools at their disposal, such as:
- Imposing interest on the payment obligations.
- Authorizing the seizure of assets to compensate for any overdue payments.
- Implementing an income deduction of up to 50% from the obligated spouse's earnings.
- Instituting an additional ruling against the obligated spouse.
- Requiring collateral or security for future payments.
Consequences of Disobeying a Support Order
If you're obligated to make support payments and are finding it difficult to do so, you are entitled to request a modification of the order—a much wiser option than simply defaulting on payments. Support orders carry legal force, and non-compliance, be it through missed payments or any other form of breach, could result in a contempt of court charge, a criminal offense that could lead to hefty fines, or up to six months of imprisonment.
The Lento Law Firm Can Help With Child/Spousal Support Matters in Berks County, PA
If you require legal counsel regarding spousal support, child support, or other family law concerns in Berks County, PA, the Family Law Team can help. They have assisted many clients in Pennsylvania who are dealing with family law matters such as yours, and they will work for you to help secure the best possible outcome. Reach out to us at (888) 535-3686 or fill out our online form to schedule a consultation.