In every separation and divorce, one of the most complex aspects to figure out is the money—even more so when one spouse has been financially dependent on the other and even more so when children are involved. Determining child and spousal support in Pennsylvania can be especially contentious, and between the complexities of paperwork, negotiations, and hearings, the process can become overwhelming very quickly.
In situations where a mutually agreeable, out-of-court settlement regarding child and/or spousal support is unattainable, resorting to court-issued support orders becomes the only alternative. In Lancaster County, PA, such issues are managed by the Domestic Relations Section of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas. Given the significant implications and heightened emotions often involved, enlisting the help of a seasoned family law attorney is advisable to ensure a fair resolution in matters of spousal and child support in Pennsylvania. Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team offer extensive experience in Pennsylvania family law matters. To arrange a consultation, call (888) 535-3686 or connect with us online.
Comprehending Financial Support under Pennsylvania Law
Under Pennsylvania law, spouses are required to support each other financially according to their ability when they part ways. This duty extends to any children in the family under 18 and, in certain instances, those over 18. During separation or divorce proceedings, two forms of financial support are considered: child support and spousal support.
Child support: The financial assistance given from one spouse to another to assist in covering the costs related to raising their children.
Spousal support: The financial aid provided by one spouse to the other for a certain period of time, ensuring financial stability during the separation and divorce proceedings (and sometimes post-divorce).
Child Support in Pennsylvania
Child support is a court-ordered payment plan that requires one parent to contribute financially towards the expenses related to child-rearing. Generally, the non-custodial parent pays these to the custodial parent, that is, the parent with whom the child primarily lives. These payments aim to cover the child's basic needs, including utilities, food, clothing, education, and housing.
Determining Child Support in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania employs a set of established criteria for calculating child support amounts. However, these figures merely provide a starting point for a parent's financial responsibilities, and the courts may adjust these amounts based on each case's unique circumstances.
When determining child support in Lancaster County, the court will consider 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 sources of household income, such as investments and rental properties.
- Any additional financial obligations of the paying spouse (e.g., if they are also providing spousal support).
Typically, child support payments continue until the child turns 18 (the age of majority in PA), but in certain cases, such as when the child has a severe disability requiring long-term support, payments may extend into adulthood.
The court's decisions always prioritize the child's best interests. For example, if lower child support payments would adversely affect the child's standard of living, this factor may increase the amount of child support awarded, even if the baseline formula suggests a lower payment.
Spousal Support in Pennsylvania
Spousal support aims to prevent a financially dependent spouse from suffering undue hardship during and after a separation or divorce. Some support arrangements may be short-term, lasting only until the finalization of the divorce. Others may extend longer to provide necessary support to the ex-spouse.
Types of Spousal Support
The State of Pennsylvania recognizes three general categories of spousal support, each determined by various factors, including the stage of the divorce proceedings.
- Spousal support: Regular payments provided to a dependent spouse to assist with their essential living expenses and other reasonable costs during the period of separation and preceding the formal legal divorce.
- Alimony Pendente Lite (APL): Temporary financial support typically awarded when one party initiates divorce proceedings. It serves as a counterpart to spousal support but is specifically applicable during the period leading up to the finalization of the divorce, while spousal support is usually awarded during the separation phase. (Only one form of support will apply--a spouse cannot receive both APL and spousal support.)
- Alimony: Refers to ongoing financial support awarded to a dependent spouse after divorce. These payments are intended to keep the dependent spouse from relying on state benefits and help cover their ongoing reasonable expenses.
How Spousal Support is Determined
In Pennsylvania, spousal support is not automatically granted. The court has the discretion to award any of these types of support only if they are deemed reasonable and necessary based on several factors, such as:
- Length of the marriage.
- Each spouse's earning capacity, for instance, their educational qualifications and training.
- The actual income of each spouse.
- Expected income (for example, inheritances).
- Any barriers 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, with some awards being considerably higher or lower than others.
Court Orders for Child and Spousal Support
In instances where financial assistance is required post-separation, the spouse seeking such aid can file a petition for child and/or spousal support. If this request is granted, a court order will be created detailing the financial obligations of the paying spouse, whether for child support or spousal support. Non-compliance with the directives of this court order could lead to severe repercussions, including potential criminal charges.
The Process of Requesting Support in Lancaster County, PA Courts
Lancaster County, like the rest of Pennsylvania, follows a specific set of guidelines and procedures for lodging requests for child and/or spousal support during a divorce. These cases undergo several stages before arriving at family court, and the process aims to circumvent litigation if at all possible. Given the emotional toll and complexity of these proceedings, it's strongly advised to enlist the services of a seasoned attorney before agreeing to any support arrangement. The Lento Law Form Team can assist you through the entire process.
Below is a brief overview of the process:
If you're requesting alimony as part of a divorce, this request is included within the divorce complaint and does not need to be requested separately. For spousal support, APL, or child support, applications are submitted through the Lancaster County Domestic Relations Section (DRS) of the Court of Common Pleas in Lancaster, PA. Spouses can register a support request online or personally visit the office located at:
Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas
Domestic Relations Office
150 N. Queen St., Suite 220
Lancaster, PA 17603
Please note that divorce and child custody cases are handled by a different office in Lancaster County, the Prothonotary's Office, and divorce hearings are presided over by a Divorce Master, not a Judge.
When a petition is filed for support, the DRS begins by attempting to get both parties to reach an agreement outside of court. These negotiations for child and/or spousal support occur during a court conference.
A court-appointed conference officer (CO) supervises the support conference, working with the parties to mediate and devise a mutually acceptable solution. Both parties may have their attorneys present to participate in the process. During the conference, both parties will submit proof of their income and financial needs to the CO. If the two sides agree, the CO will create a support order based on the agreement, which both parties will sign. If they cannot come to an agreement, the matter will advance to a full hearing with a judge.
Court Hearing Procedure and Support Order
Should the case advance to a hearing, a judge will schedule a review. It is recommended that you be accompanied by your counsel at these hearings. If you have a hearing scheduled, ensure punctuality to avoid contempt of court charges. If only one party is present, the judge will only consider that party's viewpoint and base their decision on the arguments presented. At the hearing's conclusion, the judge will issue a support order based on their findings.
Why You Should Hire a Lawyer for Spousal/Child Support in Lancaster County
While you can certainly represent yourself in spousal or child support matters in Lancaster County, PA, your odds of success are much better if you are represented by an experienced family law attorney for three important reasons:
- Family law cases can quickly escalate into disputes, especially where money is involved. An attorney with good negotiation skills can diffuse tensions and strive for an amicable resolution. Alternatively, they can effectively advocate for your cause in court.
- It ensures all paperwork is accurately filed by court-imposed deadlines. Applying for support is a complex process, and without legal representation, you risk missing critical deadlines or submitting incomplete paperwork, which could adversely impact your case.
- There may be evidence you have overlooked. Often, an attorney can identify facets of your case that you may have missed. These elements could significantly bolster your case, and you might overlook them otherwise.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team are ready to assist you in navigating your family law issues in Lancaster County.
Challenging a Support Order in Lancaster County, PA
If you wish to challenge a court support order, you have the option to file a Motion for Reconsideration with the Family Court. This process can be complex and demands strict adherence to deadlines. For optimal results, you should have an experienced attorney help you with this process. The Lento Law Firm Team is well-equipped to ensure this motion is prepared and filed accurately, optimizing your chances for a favorable outcome.
Amending a Support Order
As family dynamics and needs change, either party typically has the right to petition the court for a revision of the support order. Such amendments can either increase or decrease payments, depending on the circumstances. Both parties can also mutually consent to modify alimony or child support payments. If you do so, however, make sure you submit the proposed changes to the court for approval. Otherwise, the original order remains in effect, and the paying spouse may risk being charged with violating the order if the new agreement is not officially approved.
Enforcing Support Orders in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, courts have the authority to uphold orders for spousal and child support if the obligated spouse fails to fulfill their payment duties. The judge has several tools at their disposal to enforce the order, such as:
- Applying interest to the payment obligations.
- Permitting the confiscation of assets to cover any overdue payments.
- Implementing a wage deduction of up to 50% of the income of the obligated spouse.
- Instituting an additional judgment against the obligated spouse.
- Mandating collateral or security for future payments.
Consequences of Non-compliance With a Support Order
If you are required to make support payments and are struggling to meet your responsibilities, you have the right to request a modification of the order—and this is far preferable to the alternative of simply not paying. Support orders are legally enforceable, and if you fail to make the designated payments or breach the order in any other manner, you could be found in contempt of court, which is a criminal offense. This potential charge could lead to significant fines or imprisonment for up to six months.
The Lento Law Firm Can Assist With Child/Spousal Support Matters in Lancaster County, PA
If you need legal assistance related to spousal support, child support, or other family law issues in Lancaster County, PA, Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team possess many years of experience in Pennsylvania family law matters, and they can work on your behalf to help you achieve the most favorable outcome. Whether you need to apply for support or contest an existing support order, we can aid with negotiations, represent you during court hearings, and ensure your fair treatment throughout the process. Contact us at (888) 535-3686 or fill out our online form to schedule a consultation.