Regardless of why or how it happens when a family unit breaks down because of separation or divorce, the experience can be a messy mix of sadness, relief, stress, and often, ideally, hope for a happier future for those involved. Even if you've felt motivated to take the first step for a long time, the mental and emotional toll can be somewhat jarring and disorienting. Know that it can and does get better.
If you're going through (or heading into) a divorce, with or without dependents, having a trusted legal defense by your side can help you achieve an expeditious process and a fair outcome so you and your family can move on and look forward to happier days.
As you plan for what's to come in your family law case(s), you are most likely anticipating having issues to settle, such as financial matters (assets, debts, bank accounts, homes, spousal support) and dependent-related matters (custody arrangements and child support). The Family Law Team at the LLF Law Firm can assist. Schedule a consultation by calling (888) 535-3686 or telling us about your case online.
Settling Family Law Matters in Court Versus Out of Court
In an ideal world, you and your spouse would be able to settle matters amicably and independently or possibly with the assistance of a divorce mediator. If it isn't possible to come to an agreement on everything informally and out of court, the decision-making will be left up to the courts.
For example, you understand that spouses in Pennsylvania are expected to support one another financially while married, if possible. This support also extends to children under the age of 18 and, in some cases, dependents older than 18. If, in a divorce proceeding, parties can't reach their own informal, out-of-court agreement on how spousal and child support will be handled after a divorce, the courts will issue formal support orders instead.
Spousal and Child Support in Centre County
When you separate from your spouse or initiate divorce proceedings, you might be planning to ask for alimony or child support. Most people are familiar with these basic types of arrangements:
- Child Support: Once spouse makes payments to the other to cover the costs of raising their children.
- Spousal Support: One spouse makes payments to the other to support them financially for a period of time.
Whether you are entitled to child support or spousal hinges on a variety of factors, such as individual income and need.
In Centre County, PA, such matters are heard by the Centre County Court of Common Pleas. Parties seeking child or spousal support orders should file with the court's Domestic Relations Section (DRS). The DRS is an office of the Centre County Government under the Centre County Court of Common Pleas located in Bellefonte. It establishes and enforces both child and spousal support orders. In the event there is a question about parental responsibility, the DRS also establishes paternity for children born out-of-wedlock and locates absent parents.
But leaving your fate and your family's fate up to a judge who knows very little about you, your family and its history, and your unique circumstances can feel precarious and discomforting and doesn't always result in the most just and equitable outcomes. This is where we come in.
If you are dealing with matters of Family Law in Centre County, PA, contact the Family Law Team at the LLF Law Firm today. If you've been through this process and are unhappy with the outcome, we can assist you in challenging an existing order as well. You won't go alone into the courtroom – we'll be there to represent you, present accurate arguments in your favor, and defend you, as needed, to ensure fair treatment.
Filing a Petition for Child or Spousal Support
If you plan to seek spousal or child support, you must first file a Petition for Support at the DRS. You can also file electronically for both on the PA Child Support Website. This will then be forwarded to Centre County's DRS. If you need assistance in filing, you can also schedule an appointment with the Intake Officer.
Anyone can file for spousal or child support without an attorney, but it pays to have legal counsel on your side when you are dealing with something so important and, in many cases, permanent.
Should You Expect Child Support?
Child support in Centre County, PA, is a court-ordered payment arrangement intended to ensure a child's basic needs are met, including housing, utilities, nutritious food, clothing, and childcare. Typically – but it's not always so straightforward, especially with joint custody arrangements – the custodial parent (who the child lives with) receives child support payments from the other.
How Is Child Support Calculated?
Pennsylvania's codified measurement system is a guideline for what an appropriate child support payment would be. Keep in mind the numbers listed are merely a reflection of a parent's basic financial obligations. The actual amount of child support that a court may award can vary.
The judge in your case will look at many variables, including:
- The child's age
- Any specific needs your child has (a diagnosis or health condition requiring specialized support, for example)
- Income of both spouses
- Shared assets, including investments and rental properties
- Financial obligations you or your spouse may have (for example, whether one of you is paying child support for a child from a previous marriage)
Ultimately, the judge will seek to make the best decision based on what they believe your child's best interests are. If, for example, a child's standard of living will be severely impacted by low child support payments, this may outweigh other factors.
How Long Does Child Support Last?
Usually, the parent making child support payments will continue to do so until the child turns 18 or they become emancipated. In cases where the child has a significant disability and requires longer-term support, payments may be mandated to continue for a longer period of time.
Should you Seek Spousal Support?
You know your financial situation better than anyone else and likely have a good idea of whether you will require financial support now or once you and your spouse are no longer married. Don't shortchange yourself. It can be easy to overlook important reasons to seek spousal support – in the short-term or long-term – and to underestimate the financial position you might find yourself in while separating or after your divorce is finalized.
The court will determine if support is deemed reasonable and necessary, taking into consideration:
- How long you were married
- Your and your spouse's earning potential
- You and your spouse's actual income.
- Miscellaneous anticipated income, such as an inheritance
- Anything that would limit you or your spouse from reaching your earning potential (such as raising a child)
Exploring Spousal Support
To help you determine whether this is something you should pursue, let's look at the various types of spousal support you might qualify for in Pennsylvania. They generally correspond to the stage you are at in your separation or divorce.
- Spousal support: If you are legally separated but not officially divorced, you might qualify to receive payments from your spouse to meet your living expenses until there is a resolution.
- Alimony Pendente Lite (APL): APL is similar, but it is appropriate when one party has officially filed for divorce. You can't receive both spousal support and APL at the same time. You will receive one or the other if this is something you seek and succeed in petitioning for.
- Post-divorce alimony: This is the kind of financial support most people think of when they hear the term spousal support. If you are financially dependent on your spouse, the judge in your divorce case may award you ongoing support payments after your divorce is finalized. The state has an incentive to award such payments because they make it less likely that the financially dependent spouse will need to rely on state benefits.
- Equitable reimbursement: Let's say you are currently in school, working toward a degree, license, or certificate to increase your earning potential. You may be awarded equitable reimbursement to meet basic, reasonable expenses while you are completing your education.
Filing for Support in Centre County, PA
If you plan to seek financial support from your spouse after you are divorced, including alimony and child support, this is often included in the divorce complaint, so you may not need to file for these separately. This is not the case, however, with APL or spousal support. For these types of support, you will need to file a petition with the Centre County Domestic Relations Office in Bellefonte. This is also who you would contact to modify any existing orders.
In many cases, the court will attempt to have you and your spouse come to a voluntary agreement about support through a conference. If that is not possible, a family court judge will determine support obligations and will make a civil court order outlining the paying spouse's obligations. Violating the court order can bring serious penalties (but that certainly doesn't stop many spouses from evading their responsibilities).
Do You Need an Attorney to File for Support?
The simple answer is no. You can file for spousal support or child support in Centre County, PA, without an attorney. However, it is highly beneficial to be represented by legal counsel for issues of family law, especially when the situation has the possibility of becoming contentious.
An attorney will help ensure you meet all deadlines for submitting various documents and critical evidence to the courts, which can be an overwhelming process for someone unfamiliar with how family law courts work.
If you are considering legal representation, the Family Law Team at the LLF Law Firm is waiting to assist you with your family law issues.
Keeping in mind that this process can be complex, below is a high-level summary of what you can expect.
The support conference will be overseen by a court-appointed Master, who will attempt to mediate the discussion between you and your spouse. You may be allowed to have an attorney present to represent you in these conversations. Alternatively, your attorney can also provide coaching prior to the conference.
If paternity is at all in question in a child support case, Pennsylvania courts offer paternity testing resources to families who have a child whose biological father is in dispute.
If your case cannot be settled in a conference, it will move on to a full hearing with a family court judge. Your case will be assigned a date and time for review by a judge. Do not miss this. You do not want to be found in contempt of court, which is serious. If only one side is present, the judge will only hear one side of the argument and decide based on only what was presented.
It is advisable to have legal counsel representing you at your hearing.
How to Appeal a Support Decision
If you are unhappy with the result of your hearing, you can file a Motion for Reconsideration with the Family Court. Please be advised that this process can be intricate and delicate, and there are strict deadlines you must meet. Before you appeal, ideally, you will seek guidance from an attorney who is very familiar with this process.
How to Modify a Court Order
If the existing order needs modification because of a change in employment, earning potential, or other reason, you can either make a formal agreement with the other party (which must be ratified by the court) or, in the event you cannot come to an agreement, file a petition to modify the support order.
How are Support Orders Enforced?
A family court judge can enforce a support order, according to Chapter 37 Section 3703, in the following ways:
- Charge the payee interest on delinquent payments
- Order the seizure of property and up to 50% of the payee's wages to cover the arrears
- Enter a further judgment against the paying spouse
- Require collateral or security for future payments
What if a Support Order is Violated?
An individual who has been ordered to make child or spousal support payments but fails to do so may face contempt charges, which are criminal rather than civil matters. This finding can involve significant fines and jail time.
Unfortunately, these deterrents are not always adequate. The practice of dodging support payments is sadly not uncommon. With the backlog of cases family law courts are usually dealing with and the lack of cooperation among states (if a payee moves out of state), enforcing support orders can be extremely time- and resource-intensive, which means payments can be delayed for months and sometimes years.
Retain a Centre County, Pennsylvania Support Attorney
If you would like support as you navigate a separation, divorce, support, or other family law matter in Centre County, PA, we invite you to contact the Family Law Team at the LLF Law Firm today. We will advise and coach you, prepare and submit documents and evidence, represent you in court, and fight for your fair treatment through this difficult time.
It is not necessary to go through this alone. These matters are too important to leave to chance. Get the legal support, advice, and representation you deserve. Call (888) 535 - 3686 to arrange a meeting or share your situation with us online.