Going through the legal dissolution of a family can be an extremely difficult period, one marked by stress and intense emotions. Just as finances can be the primary source of arguments within a marriage, it can also be one of the trickiest issues to tackle in a divorce--most notably, how to divide up financial responsibility for the children and, if one spouse is dependent on the other, figuring out financial support for that spouse, as well.
If parents are unable to reach an amicable agreement on their own or outside of court, the courts have the authority to issue support orders. In Chester County, PA, issues regarding spousal support and child support are taken up by the Domestic Relations Department at the Chester County Court of Common Pleas. (Family court is relegated to other issues such as divorce and child custody.)
When filing for child or spousal support, your best chance of success lies with having a knowledgeable Pennsylvania family law attorney in your corner. Joseph D. Lento and his dedicated Family Law Team have many years of experience with family court matters in Chester County, PA. To schedule a consultation, please call (888) 535-3686 or reach out to us online.
Understanding Financial Support Expectations
Under Title 23 Pa. C.S. § 4321 of the Pennsylvania statutes, married spouses are liable to support each other throughout their marriage, provided they have the means to do so. They also share the responsibility to provide for any children from the marriage under the age of 18, and in certain situations, for those who are older than 18.
Upon separation or initiation of divorce proceedings, two primary types of financial support must be decided: child support and spousal support.
- Child Support: These are payments made by one parent to the other to help cover the costs associated with raising their children.
- Spousal Support: These are payments made by one spouse to the other to offer them financial assistance for a specified period.
The eligibility for child and spousal support depends on various factors, such as whether the couple has recently separated or has initiated divorce proceedings, as well as individual financial needs.
How Child Support Works in PA
In Chester County, PA, child support is a court-mandated payment arrangement that obligates one parent to provide regular monetary support to the other parent to aid in meeting the costs associated with caring for and raising the child. Child support payments aim to cater to a child's fundamental needs, which include but are not limited to, utilities, nutrition, clothing, education, and housing.
Typically, the non-custodial parent (i.e., the parent who doesn't live with the child) is the one who makes child support payments to the custodial parent.
Calculating Child Support
Pennsylvania uses a defined system to calculate child support amounts. However, the figures produced in this system only represent basic financial obligations, and the actual amount awarded by the court could vary. When weighing various factors, the court will always prioritize the child's best interests when determining child support.
When calculating child support in Chester County, the court will consider several factors:
- Specific support needs, for instance, if the child has a particular health condition.
- Other household income, such as from investments and rental properties.
- The child's age.
- The income and assets of the other spouse.
- Any other financial obligations the paying spouse may have, such as spousal support.
Duration of Child Support Payments
Generally, the non-custodial parent is required to make child support payments until the child turns 18 (the age of majority in PA) or otherwise becomes legally independent. In some instances, payments may extend into adulthood--for example, if the child has a significant disability requiring long-term support.
How Spousal Support Works in PA
The goal of spousal support In Pennsylvania is to prevent a financially dependent spouse from experiencing financial hardship as a result of the separation or divorce. Some support arrangements may be short-term, lasting only until the finalization of a divorce, while others may extend longer to provide the necessary support to an ex-spouse.
Types of Spousal Support
Broadly speaking, there are three types of spousal support in PA, depending on the stage of divorce proceedings:
Spousal support: These are payments made to enable a dependent spouse to meet their basic and other reasonable expenses while separated but not yet formally divorced.
Alimony Pendente Lite (APL): Where spousal support occurs during separation, APL is usually awarded while a divorce action is ongoing (i.e., when one party files for divorce). It offers similar financial support as spousal support, but both APL and spousal support cannot be implemented simultaneously; it will be one or the other.
Post-divorce alimony: This represents ongoing financial support awarded to a dependent spouse after the divorce is finalized. These payments prevent the spouse from relying on state benefits and help them meet their reasonable ongoing expenses.
Other forms of financial support may also be awarded in a divorce. One example is "equitable reimbursement," which enables one spouse to complete education or training to boost their earning potential so they can sustain themselves financially post-divorce.
Calculating Spousal Support
There's no automatic entitlement to spousal support or alimony in Pennsylvania. The court only awards this support to the extent that it is deemed reasonable and necessary (Title 23 Pa. C.S. § 3701). Factors weighed by the courts in determining alimony include, but are not limited to:
- The length of the marriage.
- Each spouse's earning potential, considering their training and education.
- Each spouse's actual income.
- Expected income, such as inheritances.
- Any limitations on a spouse's ability to reach their full earning potential (e.g., due to child-rearing responsibilities).
Navigating the Court Process for Child/Spousal Support in Chester County, PA
The journey through support proceedings can feel like a labyrinth. In Chester County, the court process for divorce and subsequent support procedures follow a series of steps. The aim is always to resolve matters amicably, with conferences held to mediate and settle disputes before resorting to court hearings. Please bear in mind that what follows is a brief overview, and the process can be complex. For best results and to ensure your rights are protected, seek legal counsel from an experienced family law attorney prior to entering into any financial support agreement. The Lento Law Firm Family Law Team can assist with these matters.
Initiating Support Proceedings in Chester County, PA
When filing for divorce, alimony is typically included within the complaint, so there's no requirement to file separately for alimony. If you're seeking Alimony Pendente Lite (APL) or spousal support, you can file with the Domestic Relations Department at the Chester County Court of Common Pleas. You can fill out the petition online or file it in person at:
201 W. Market St, Suite 3400
West Chester, PA 19380-0991
IMPORTANT: This office is a different office from Family Court Administration, where you file for divorce or child custody. While both offices exist on different floors of the County Justice Complex, they perform distinctly different functions.
While a divorce decree officially ends the marriage, it doesn't address support or child custody issues. These matters require separate filings, which could be consolidated into the divorce proceedings. Most of these issues are typically resolved during the discussion phase at a court conference.
In child support cases, establishing paternity may be necessary before discussing support. Pennsylvania courts provide resources for paternity testing to families in need.
A court-appointed Master oversees the support conference, mediating the situation and ensuring both parties have an opportunity to voice their concerns. Masters specialize in either spousal or child support, depending on the case. Depending on the circumstances, attorneys may be allowed to participate actively and represent their clients during these conferences.
If a settlement can't be reached during the conference, the support case proceeds to a full hearing in front of a Family Law Judge. It's essential to attend your hearing promptly, as failure to do so can lead to contempt of court charges. Additionally, if only one party is present, the judge will hear only one side of the story, potentially affecting the outcome.
Why Legal Representation Matters
While not mandatory, it is highly advisable to seek legal representation when filing for spousal or child support in Chester County, PA. Here's why:
- Family law matters, especially those involving financial support, can quickly become contentious. An attorney with strong negotiating skills can either help diffuse tensions to come to a resolution or make a strong case for you in court.
- Meeting court deadlines and accurately filing the necessary paperwork is crucial. Without proper legal guidance, there is a risk of missing important deadlines or submitting incomplete documents.
- An attorney can uncover crucial evidence to strengthen your case that you might have overlooked. In many cases, this evidence can make a huge difference in the outcome.
To ensure the best possible outcome, you should have a lawyer by your side who can navigate the complexities of Pennsylvania family law and advocate for your rights effectively. Remember, Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his Family Law Team are ready to assist you with your family law matters.
Appealing a Support Decision in Chester County, PA
If you wish to appeal the court's decision regarding child or spousal support, you can file a Motion for Reconsideration with the Family Court. This process can be intricate, and strict deadlines need to be followed. We strongly advise consulting with an attorney before appealing a child support or alimony order in Chester County, PA.
Modifying a Court Order
In most situations, either party can petition the court to modify a support order. This could mean increasing or decreasing payments based on changing circumstances. Parties can also mutually agree to modify alimony or child support payments. However, if you come to a mutual agreement with your ex regarding support, make sure you present the changes to the court and have them ratified. Otherwise, the previous order remains in effect, and the paying spouse could be accused of violating the order.
Enforcing a Support Order in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, the courts have the power to enforce alimony and support orders as specified under Chapter 37 Section 3703. If you are owed support, and the other party is not complying with the court's order, the judge has several ways to enforce it:
- Adding interest to the overdue payments.
- Authorizing the seizure of the other party's property, including any payments they receive or investments they hold, to cover the outstanding amount.
- Garnishing up to 50% of their wages.
- Entering a further judgment against them.
- Requiring the party to provide collateral or security for future payments.
Consequences of Violating a Support Order
Support orders, like all civil court orders, are legally binding. If you are responsible for making support payments and you fail to do so or violate the order in any other way, you could face criminal charges for being in contempt of court. If convicted, you could face fines and jail time of up to 6 months.
Because there's so much at stake, if you're struggling to make support payments due to changes in your circumstances, don't just avoid payment. Instead, seek legal help to modify the order. This can prevent you from facing legal consequences and ensure that the order accurately reflects your current situation.
Get Legal Help from a Family Law Attorney in Chester County, Pennsylvania
Family law matters can be complex and emotionally draining. If you're dealing with issues related to spousal support, alimony, or child support in Chester County, PA, you don't have to go through this alone. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his experienced Family Law Team are here to help. Whether you need to obtain a support order, challenge an existing one, or navigate enforcement procedures, we can provide the guidance and representation you need. We will stand by you at court hearings, help you present the strongest case possible, and ensure that you're treated fairly throughout the process. Contact us at (888) 535-3686 to arrange a meeting or tell us about your issue online.