A separation or divorce is a difficult time for everyone involved, spouses and children in particular, but also for extended family and friends. Two of the key issues that often dominate these situations are child support and spousal support. In some cases, the expectations divorcing spouses have about child and spousal support don't match with the realities of what Pennsylvania law requires, which means their agreed support terms won't be accepted by the court. The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team has put together this summary of some of the more important aspects of Pennsylvania child and spousal support law to help you understand what the law is and how it may be applied in your situation. If, after reading this, you have questions about your case, call the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team at 888.535.3686, or use our online contact form to set up a confidential consultation.
Even if your separation or divorce situation is an amicable one, and you and your spouse believe you can come to an agreement on support issues, in cases where children are involved, a Northumberland County Family Court judge will still need to review your proposed support terms. That's because courts in Pennsylvania are required to consider the best interests of the children when spouses are divorcing and have a number of factors that they are required to take into account when deciding what spousal and child support obligations will be. If your agreement doesn't meet those standards, the judge will revise it so it does.
That's why it can be enormously helpful to work with an experienced family law attorney from the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team, even in cases where you and your spouse have relatively few disagreements about how your divorce is to proceed. Your attorney can help make sure that even in these cases, your agreements meet the legal standards that Pennsylvania requires. In addition, divorce proceedings can be complicated – even if there aren't any major issues to resolve – and working with a lawyer who understands the law and the court system will help smooth the process and give you less to worry about so you can focus on the next chapter of your life.
In Northumberland County, there are two ways to file for child support, which you can request even before a divorce complaint has been filed. One is to use the online Pennsylvania Child Support Program, which will accept your child support claim and direct it to the Family Court in Northumberland County. The other is to file a child support complaint with the Domestic Relations office in Sunbury. In addition, when a divorce complaint is filed, it will typically include requests for spousal and child support, or if it doesn't, those requests can be added to the case by the responding spouse. In that case, there will be no need to file a separate child support complaint.
Expectation of Financial Support
In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, parents are expected to provide support for their child at least until the child turns 18, and in some cases (such as where the child has a disability), even after that. In addition, spouses are expected to support each other during the divorce “according to their respective abilities.”
Where support requests have been made, the court can order that support be provided even before the divorce proceeding begins. These orders are typically temporary, and the support issues will be addressed during the divorce case, with any ongoing support requirements made as part of the final divorce decree. Keep in mind that Child Support is different from Spousal Support. In particular:
- Child Support. This addresses payments that are to be made by one spouse to another to cover the costs associated with raising the divorcing couple's child or children.
- Spousal Support. These are payments that one spouse makes to the other spouse, typically because one spouse makes more money than the other and because the other spouse needs the payments to help cover certain living expenses.
Child support orders are just that – court orders directing one spouse to make certain payments to the other spouse that are to be used to help pay the costs of caring for the divorcing couple's children. As with any court order, if the person it's directed towards violates it, there can be serious repercussions, which are discussed later in this summary. In most cases, the parent who does not have physical custody of the child or children will be the one making child support payments to the parent who does. This is for the simple reason that it's the parent with physical custody who is dealing with the daily expenses of raising the kids.
How Child Support Is Calculated
Courts in Northumberland County must follow Pennsylvania's child support laws, which include a “Basic Child Support Schedule” that is to be used to determine the basic amount of child support. There are separate guidelines used in so-called “High-Income Cases,” where the combined net income of the couple is greater than $30,000 per month. The court may adjust these amounts based on a number of factors, such as:
- Custodial Spouse Income. This includes any assets that the spouse who has physical custody of the children may have.
- Additional Income. This applies to either spouse and refers to income other than a regular salary or wage, such as investment or real estate income.
- Other Financial Obligations. If either spouse has other significant financial obligations, for example, other support payments that they must make, the court will take those into account.
- Health Issues. If one or more children have physical or mental health conditions that must be taken care of, the child support order may be modified to account for the costs associated with that care.
- Age of the Children. Children's needs change as they age, and the costs of providing for those needs may change as well.
The overriding concern for a judge who is making a decision about the amount of child support is what is in the best interests of the children. Courts will regularly cite this when they deviate from the standard support amounts listed in the statutes.
How Long Child Support Lasts
The law in Pennsylvania requires parents to support their children until they turn 18, though that may be extended depending on the situation. Children with physical or mental health needs may be supported after 18, as well as children who are still in school. As with many child support issues, it will depend on the particular situation and on what the court considers to be in the best interests of the child.
As noted, Spousal Support is different from Child Support. It's also different from alimony, though that difference depends more on what stage the divorce proceedings are at. Strictly speaking, spousal support is paid while the divorce proceedings are ongoing and is meant to help support a spouse who is normally financially dependent on the other spouse. Alimony payments begin after the divorce is final.
Types of Spousal Support
The three types of spousal support in Pennsylvania are:
- Spousal Support. This is the term that courts use for payments that go from one spouse to the other to help the other spouse meet regular living expenses. Spousal support may be ordered for periods when the divorcing couple is legally separated. It ends when the divorce decree becomes final.
- Alimony Pendente Lite (APL). This is similar to spousal support, but it's awarded after the divorce complaint is on file. It will end when the divorce becomes final. A court often orders APL payments in cases where one party files for the divorce (as opposed to when both parties mutually file).
- Post-Divorce Alimony. This is a form of spousal support that is awarded as part of the final divorce decree. Not every divorce situation results in alimony payments, but generally speaking, if one of the parties needs help to avoid relying on state benefits, the court is more likely to award that party alimony.
An additional category of support is called “equitable reimbursement” and may be awarded in situations where one spouse needs help with tuition for schooling or training that is likely to result in that spouse being able to earn more in the future. A spouse who earns more is likely to have less of a need for alimony, so these short-term equitable reimbursement payments can often have long-term benefits for the paying spouse.
How Spousal Support Is Calculated
Northumberland County courts must follow guidelines listed in Pennsylvania law when considering whether alimony should be awarded and, if so, how much it should be. Pennsylvania has a total of 17 separate factors that a judge considering an alimony request must take into account. These include:
- The parties' “relative education” and how long it will take for the party asking for alimony to “acquire sufficient education” so that they can “find appropriate employment;”
- The parties' “relative needs;”
- What kind of standard of living the divorcing couple had enjoyed during the marriage;
- How long the marriage lasted;
- Any expectations that either party has that they will receive funds or income in the future, including by inheritance;
- All sources of income available to both parties;
- The “contribution of a spouse as a homemaker.”
As a result of there being so many factors that can go into an alimony determination, it's hard to come up with a hard and fast rule for determining how much any alimony awarded should be in any particular case. A skilled family law attorney can use their experience, information from their client about family income, expenses, and finances, and understanding of Pennsylvania alimony law to help a client who is seeking alimony or a client who is questioning the amount of alimony that their spouse is asking the court to award.
Court Orders for Child and Spousal Support
Child support and spousal support must both be set forth in a court order to be enforceable. In order to get that order, you must apply to the court for one. As noted, you can do this through the Pennsylvania Child Support Program's website or by filing a “paper” complaint with the Northumberland County Domestic Relations Office in Sudbury. Once the court considers your request and enters an order, the spouse required to make payment will be served with the order and must follow its terms or risk being held in contempt or charged with a crime for ignoring it.
The Court Process in Northumberland County, PA
Northumberland County's Domestic Relations office can answer basic questions about the child and spousal support process there but don't expect them to offer you legal advice. Some of the steps you can expect the court process to include are as follows:
- Filing for Support. If a divorce complaint has been filed, support requests can be included as part of the complaint, or if the spouse who has filed for divorce hasn't included support requests, the other spouse can ask the court to do so. If you haven't filed for divorce but are separated, you can ask the court to award child support and spousal support during your separation period.
- Support Conferences. Because there is a lot of information that courts need to consider when making support decisions, you will likely meet with a court official or judge to provide that information. This will include income, expenses, assets, and the like. If you've agreed with your spouse on support amounts, that may be enough, and the judge will be able to use your information and your agreement to create a support order. If you don't agree, there may be a hearing where you and your attorney (and your spouse and their attorney) will need to appear before the judge to resolve the different points of view. This is where it can be particularly helpful to be represented by one of the experienced attorneys from the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team, who know the law and the courts and can help you protect your rights.
- Appealing a Support Decision. Even if the court issues an order that you don't agree with, you may be able to have it changed by asking the court to reconsider it. This can be particularly effective in situations where, as the spouse receiving the support, the support award isn't enough to meet your basic needs or those of your children, or if you're the spouse making the payments, those payments are so high that you are not left with enough to live on.
Why You Need an Attorney
As you can see, filing for child or spousal support is a complicated process in Pennsylvania, with the court being required to take many different factors into consideration and with the facts of each case being so different depending on the income, assets, liabilities, and resources of the couple. A skilled attorney from the LLF Law Firm Family Defense Team can help you navigate the laws and court procedures that will affect whether the court makes a support award and how much it will be. We regularly represent spouses seeking support and spouses who are being asked to provide it. Our view is that every spouse is entitled to effective representation in court and that the best situation in a divorce case is when both sides are represented by experienced attorneys.
Modifying a Court Order
Because support awards are court orders, it's dangerous to simply change the amounts or frequency of payments, even if you and your spouse agree on the changes. Courts will want to know about those changes, and in the case of child support in particular, they will want to make sure the best interests of the children are being protected. So, if you and your spouse do agree to make changes to support, you need to get the support order modified by the court. This also makes the change enforceable in case one of you later decides not to follow your agreement.
Similarly, circumstances change, and if a child needs more support for some reason – health issues arise, or educational support is required – you can return to court to ask that a support award be increased. The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team can help you with our modification request and will make sure ahead of time that it's something that the court is likely to agree to.
Enforcing a Support Order
Pennsylvania law provides a number of ways that courts can help enforce support orders. Self-help isn't one of them, so if your spouse isn't making payments as required, you will need to bring it to the court's attention so that proper enforcement actions can happen. Our skilled family law attorneys regularly help our clients enforce support orders and know what the law and procedure are for doing so.
Violating a Support Order
If you're thinking of simply ignoring a support order – don't. In short, you could end up being held in contempt of court and penalized as a result. And don't put yourself in a position where you inadvertently violate an order by agreeing to make changes that you don't tell the court about.
Retain a Northumberland County, Pennsylvania Support Attorney
The LLF Law Firm Family Law Team has helped clients seeking child and spousal support in separation and divorce cases all over Pennsylvania. We also represent spouses who are being asked to provide that support. Our dedicated attorneys understand that divorce is a difficult situation for all parties and that it can be enormously helpful for both sides to retain experienced attorneys who understand Pennsylvania family law and the court system. When you hire us to represent you, we will help you understand what your rights are under Pennsylvania law, what the procedures are for enforcing your rights, and what help we need from you in order to provide you with the strongest representation possible.
We also understand how difficult this entire process can be for everyone involved, and we're committed to helping you make your life less stressful through this difficult time by taking much of the legal burden off of your shoulders. Call us at 888.535.3686 or use our online contact form to set up a conference to tell us more about your situation. We're here to listen and to help.