In any separation and/or divorce, the question of spousal and child support can be one of the most contentious issues to deal with. Untangling your financial connection with your ex-spouse is one thing, but figuring out how to fund two separate living situations is another matter entirely--especially if the marriage produced children, and especially if one spouse was financially dependent on the other.
When spouses fail to mutually agree on these matters, judicial intervention becomes necessary. In Philadelphia County, PA, issues of spousal and child support are the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Family Court - Domestic Relations Branch. The process of hammering out support agreements can be tedious at best, but considering that the end result will be a mandatory support order, it's important to make sure the arrangements are fair and affordable. You can certainly attempt to "go it alone" when negotiating support, but you have a much better chance at a fair outcome by hiring an experienced family law attorney to represent your interests during the process. Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team have an established history of representing clients with family court issues in Philadelphia County, PA. Please call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686 or connect with us online to schedule an appointment.
Legal Perspective on Spousal and Child Support in Pennsylvania
In the State of Pennsylvania, married spouses are required to support each other consistent with their financial abilities. They also share responsibility for the support of any marital children under 18 years old and sometimes those over 18 under certain conditions. These laws are embodied in Title 23 Pa. C.S. § 4321 of the Pennsylvania statutes.
When spouses separate or divorce, the two types of support that must be figured out are:
- Child Support: Monetary contributions made by one parent to the other to aid in covering costs associated with raising their child(ren); and
- Spousal Support: Financial support provided by one spouse to the other for a specified duration of time.
Child Support in Pennsylvania
In Philadelphia County, PA, child support is a court-mandated payment that one parent, typically the non-custodial parent, makes to the other parent to assist with the financial responsibilities of raising a child. These payments are specifically designed to help meet the child's fundamental needs, such as utilities, food, clothing, education, and housing--all to maintain the child's well-being and overall quality of life.
How Child Support is Calculated
The state provides a specific method to determine child support amounts, but this formula only accounts for the minimum basic requirements. The actual amounts awarded by the court can vary significantly based on factors like:
- Special support needs, such as a child's unique health condition.
- Additional household income, such as investments and rental properties.
- The child's age.
- The other spouse's income and assets.
- Other financial obligations the paying spouse may have, like spousal support.
How Long Does Child Support Last?
Typically, in cases of divorce or separation, the non-custodial parent is legally obligated to provide financial support for their child until they reach the age of 18, which is considered the legal age of adulthood in Pennsylvania. However, there are instances where child support payments may extend beyond the age of 18. For example, if the child has a severe disability that requires ongoing assistance, the non-custodial parent may be required to continue making financial contributions to support the child's needs well into their adulthood. This ensures that the child receives the necessary care and support throughout their life.
Spousal Support in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, spousal support primarily aims to safeguard a financially dependent spouse post-separation or divorce. This support can be temporary, ceasing upon finalization of a divorce, or long-term to maintain the ex-spouse's financial well-being. The goal is to provide a fair and equitable resolution that considers the financial circumstances and future prospects of both parties involved.
Pennsylvania identifies three categories of spousal support, each serving a distinct function:
- Spousal Support: These payments assist a dependent spouse with essential expenses during the separation phase before a formal divorce (or sometimes during protracted separations where no divorce is filed).
- Alimony Pendente Lite (APL): This is analogous to spousal support but is granted once divorce proceedings have commenced or are ongoing rather than during separation.
- Post-divorce Alimony: Payments made to an ex-spouse post-finalization of divorce to ensure their financial stability.
How Spousal Support Is Calculated
Since Pennsylvania does not provide automatic entitlement to spousal support or alimony, there is understandably no specific system by which to calculate it, as there is with child support. The court grants spousal support only when it's deemed necessary and reasonable (Title 23 Pa. C.S. § 3701). Factors that the courts consider when deciding spousal support may include, but are not limited to:
- The length of the marriage.
- Each spouse's income potential, based on their education and training.
- Each spouse's actual earnings.
- Expected income, such as inheritances.
- Any limitations on a spouse's ability to achieve their maximum income potential (e.g., due to childcare responsibilities, lack of job training, etc.).
Legal Process for Obtaining a Support Order in Philadelphia County, PA
In Philadelphia County, the divorce process and related support matters are designed to promote amicable resolution through mediation and settlement discussions before resorting to court hearings. While a divorce decree legally ends the marriage, it does not address issues of support or child custody. These matters require separate petitions that can later be incorporated into the final divorce agreement.
Outlined below is a general walkthrough of the procedure for seeking spousal/child support. The Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm can provide assistance throughout every phase of this process to help you navigate its intricacies and work towards a satisfactory outcome.
Filing a Support Petition
Alimony requests are typically included within the divorce complaint itself and don't require a separate filing. However, for spousal support or Alimony Pendente Lite (APL), you will need to file a separate petition. You can submit your petition by filling out a form and submitting it to:
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas
Domestic Relations Branch- Family Division
1501 Arch Street
Phila., PA 19102
Support Pre-Trial Conference
Next, the court will help you try to reach a mutual agreement on support amounts through a court conference. A Hearing Officer oversees the support conference, facilitating the discussion and ensuring that both parties have an opportunity to voice their concerns. Lawyers may also participate and advocate for their clients during these conferences. The Hearing Officer proposes a support amount. If both parties agree, it is converted to a Support Order and signed by a judge. If not, it proceeds to a hearing.
Support Master Hearing
If the parties fail to reach an agreement during the conference, the support case proceeds to a hearing in front of a court-appointed Support Master. It's imperative to arrive on time for your hearing, as failure to attend can result in contempt of court charges. Additionally, if only one party is present, the Support Master hears only one side of the story, which could influence the final ruling. From this hearing, the Support Order is formally issued.
Contesting a Support Order in Philadelphia County, PA
If you wish to challenge a spousal or child support ruling, you have the option of filing a Motion for Reconsideration with the Family Court. However, this procedure is complex and governed by stringent deadlines. To improve your chances of a successful appeal, consult with our Family Law Team before filing.
Revision or Alteration of a Support Order
Either party can request the court to modify a support order if needs and conditions change. This includes increasing or decreasing payments based on circumstances. Alternatively, you and your former spouse can mutually decide to amend the support terms. However, it's important to present your revised agreement to the court for endorsement since the court order holds legal weight. If the payer changes the payment amounts without informing the court, they could face charges for violating the order.
Consequences of Breaching a Support Order
Support orders, like all civil court orders, carry legal authority. Non-payment of support or violation of the order could result in criminal charges for contempt of court. A conviction could result in fines and a jail term of up to half a year. Given these severe implications, if you're finding it difficult to make support payments due to changes in your situation, do not simply avoid payment. To prevent unwanted legal consequences, seek legal guidance to alter the order.
The Role of a Family Law Attorney in Spousal/Child Support
While it's not mandatory, it's highly advisable to enlist legal counsel when seeking spousal or child support in Philadelphia County, PA, for the following reasons:
- Discussions around financial support can escalate into disputes. An attorney with strong negotiation skills can either defuse the tension and aid in achieving a resolution or effectively represent your case in court.
- Complex paperwork and strict deadlines. Assistance from an attorney ensures the support paperwork is correctly submitted within the stipulated deadlines.
- An attorney can identify crucial evidence to bolster your case, which you might have missed. Often, this evidence can significantly sway the final Support Order.
Your Ally for Family Law Matters in Philadelphia County: The Lento Law Firm
For the most favorable outcome when seeking spousal or child support, you need an attorney who is well-versed in navigating the nuances of Pennsylvania family law. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his experienced Family Law Team have extensive knowledge in these matters and can provide you with the legal help necessary to help you get the best outcome possible for you and/or your child. Connect with the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686, or contact us online to discuss your case.