The dissolution of a family structure is a challenging process, made even more difficult by the need to establish financial arrangements after the divorce. This can be more complicated the longer the marriage lasted because both the finances have been intertwined and because one spouse may have become more financially dependent on the other. It can also be tough to decide how the expenses of raising a child will be divided between two separate households.
In instances where an amicable, out-of-court agreement on child and/or spousal support cannot be reached, court-issued support orders become the only recourse. In Northampton County, PA, such matters are handled by the Domestic Relations Section of the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas in Easton, PA.
Given the high stakes (and often raw emotions) involved, engaging the services of a seasoned family law attorney is your best hope of obtaining a fair resolution concerning spousal and child support in Pennsylvania. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team brings extensive experience to the table in matters of Pennsylvania family law. To schedule a consultation, call (888) 535-3686 or connect with us online.
Understanding Financial Support Under Pennsylvania Law
Pennsylvania law mandates that spouses must mutually support each other financially upon the dissolution of their marriage according to their ability to do so. This obligation extends to their children under 18 and, in certain cases, those over 18. When initiating separation or divorce proceedings, two types of financial support come into play: child support and spousal support.
- Child support refers to the financial assistance provided from one spouse to another to help cover the expenses associated with raising their children.
- Spousal support refers to the financial assistance provided by one spouse to the other for a specified duration. It serves as a means of ensuring financial stability during and after a divorce or separation.
Child Support Explained
Child support refers to a court-ordered payment plan requiring one parent to regularly contribute towards the financial costs of raising and caring for their child. Generally, the non-custodial parent makes these payments to the custodial parent, i.e., the parent with whom the child primarily resides. These payments aim to fulfill the child's basic needs, including utilities, nutrition, clothing, education, and housing.
Determining Child Support in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has a set of established criteria for calculating child support amounts. However, these figures merely set a baseline for a parent's financial obligations, and the courts may adjust these amounts according to the unique circumstances of each case.
When calculating child support in Northampton 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).
In all situations, the court's decisions prioritize the child's best interests. For instance, if lower child support payments would detrimentally affect the child's standard of living, this factor may raise the amount of child support awarded even if the baseline formula suggests a lower payment. Usually, 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 necessitating long-term support, payments may extend into adulthood.
Spousal support in Pennsylvania aims to prevent a financially dependent spouse from experiencing undue hardship during and following a separation or divorce. Some support arrangements may be short-term, lasting until the finalization of the divorce, while others may extend longer to provide necessary support to the ex-spouse.
Categories of Spousal Support
In Pennsylvania, there are three broad categories of spousal support, each determined by various factors, including the stage of the divorce proceedings.
- Spousal support refers to regular payments provided to a dependent spouse to assist with their essential living expenses and other reasonable costs during the period of separation preceding the formal legal divorce.
- Alimony Pendente Lite (APL) refers to temporary support that is usually 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 typically awarded during the separation phase.
- Alimony refers to ongoing payments granted to a dependent spouse after divorce. These payments provide financial support, preventing the spouse from relying on state benefits, and help cover their ongoing reasonable expenses.
Determining Spousal Support
In the state of Pennsylvania, alimony or spousal support is not automatically granted. The court has the discretion to award these financial supports only if they are deemed necessary and justifiable, based on several factors such as:
- Duration of the marriage.
- Each spouse's earning capacity, for instance, their educational qualifications and training.
- The actual income of each spouse.
- Anticipated 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 differ greatly, with some being significantly higher or lower than others.
Issuance of Civil Court Orders for Child and Spousal Support
Typically, the spouse seeking financial aid will file for child and/or spousal support. If approved, a Pennsylvania family court judge will issue a civil court order outlining the obligations of the spouse required to make payments. This order may include provisions for child support, spousal support, or both. Failing to adhere to a civil court order can result in severe consequences, including possible criminal penalties.
Procedures for Seeking Support in Northampton County, PA Courts
In Northampton County, as well as across Pennsylvania, specific protocols and procedures have been established for requesting child and/or spousal support during a divorce. These cases must go through a set of stages before reaching family court for litigation, and the process is designed to avoid litigation if possible. Given the complexity and emotional intensity of the process, it's highly recommended to secure experienced legal counsel before consenting to any support arrangement. Here's a brief rundown of the procedure:
Filing for Support
Within a divorce complaint, any requests for post-divorce alimony are included, so there's no need for a separate filing for this type of support. For spousal support, APL, or child support, applications are made through the Northampton County Domestic Relations Section (DRS) of the Court of Common Pleas. Spouses can lodge a support request online or visit the office in person at:
Northampton County Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Relations Section
126 S. Union St.
Easton, PA 18042
Note that this is a different location from the Northampton County Courthouse, where divorce cases and child custody cases are heard. It is also the location where support conferences are held.
While a divorce decree solely ends the marriage, spousal and/or child support must be filed separately but can later be integrated into divorce proceedings. Most of the time, these issues need a negotiation phase for resolution. Most negotiations for child and spousal support, along with property division, occur during a court conference.
In child support cases, paternity may need to be confirmed before the case can progress to discuss support. Pennsylvania courts provide paternity testing resources for families where the biological father of a child is disputed.
The support conference is overseen by a court-appointed conference officer who works with the parties to mediate and come up with a mutually beneficial solution. Emotions can run high during this process, so having experienced legal counsel can be beneficial here. During the conference, both parties will present evidence of their income and financial needs to the court officer. The court may then require a full disclosure statement from each party before making its decision on any requested support arrangements. If the support issue cannot be resolved at this stage, it will proceed to a full hearing with a judge.
Court Hearing Process and Support Order
If the case progresses to a hearing, it will be scheduled for review by a judge. You should be represented and accompanied by your counsel at hearings. If you are scheduled for a hearing, ensure you arrive on time to avoid contempt of court charges. If only one party is present, the judge will only consider that party's perspective and make a decision based on the arguments presented. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will issue a support order based on their findings.
Reasons to Hire a Lawyer for Spousal/Child Support in Northampton County
While self-filing for spousal or child support in Northampton County, PA, is an option, having an experienced family law attorney represent your interests increases the likelihood of a favorable outcome. Here are a few reasons why:
- Family law cases, particularly those involving financial support, can quickly escalate into disputes. A skilled attorney proficient in negotiation can mitigate tensions and aim for a peaceful resolution. Alternatively, they can effectively present your case in court, advocating on your behalf with conviction.
- It ensures all paperwork is correctly filed by court deadlines. Applying for support is a complex process, and without legal representation, you risk missing crucial deadlines or submitting incomplete paperwork, which could negatively affect your case.
- There may be evidence you have overlooked. Often, an attorney can identify aspects of your case that you may have missed. These elements could significantly strengthen your case, and you might miss them otherwise.
The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team are prepared to assist you in navigating your family law issues in Northampton County.
Contesting a Support Order in Northampton County, PA
If you desire to dispute a court support order, you have the option to submit a Motion for Reconsideration to the Family Court. This procedure can be intricate and requires strict adherence to deadlines. For optimal outcomes, it is advisable to secure legal advice ahead of filing this motion. The Lento Law Firm Team is well-equipped to ensure this motion is prepared and filed accurately, maximizing your chances of success.
Amending a Support Order
As familial situations evolve, either involved party is generally entitled to request the court to amend the support order. Such modifications may either augment or lessen payments, contingent on the prevailing circumstances. Alternatively, both parties may mutually agree to adjust alimony or child support payments. However, such an agreement must receive the court's sanction; otherwise, the former order stays in force, and the paying spouse could face accusations of contravening the order if the new agreement isn't ratified.
Enforcement of Support Orders in PA
In Pennsylvania, the courts possess the power to enforce orders pertaining to spousal and child support if the obligated spouse fails to make appropriate payments. The judge has several means to enforce the order, such as:
- Adding interest to the payment obligations.
- Authorizing the seizure of assets to settle any outstanding payments.
- Arranging a wage garnishment of up to 50% of the income of the obligated spouse.
- Establishing an additional judgment against the obligated spouse.
- Requiring collateral or security for future payments.
Failure to Comply With a Support Ruling
If you are required to make support payments and are finding it difficult to meet your obligations, your best course of action is to apply for a modification of the order rather than default on payments. Civil court rulings are legally binding directives, and if you neglect to make the stipulated payments or violate the order in any other way, you could be held in contempt of court, a criminal offense. This potential charge could result in substantial penalties or incarceration for up to six months.
Retain a Northampton County, Pennsylvania Support Lawyer Today
If you are dealing with issues surrounding spousal support, child support, or other family law matters in Northampton County, PA, the Lento Law Firm Family Law Team have the requisite experience to help you in obtaining the best possible outcome. Whether you need to petition for support or challenge an existing support order, we can help with negotiations, represent you during court proceedings, and ensure you are treated fairly throughout the process. Contact us at (888) 535-3686 or fill out our online form to arrange a consultation.