Before an order of child support can be entered, a court must determine the amount of support appropriate for a particular child and which parent should pay a portion of that amount to the other. In Pennsylvania, the courts accomplish this by following what is known as the “income shares” model, which aims to give a child of divorced, separated, or never-married parents the same level of financial support the child would have received if he and his family lived together in a single household. To arrive at the amount of support, as well as which party will pay, the court will consider the incomes and earning abilities of both parents and the financial needs of the child.
Child support is given high priority in Pennsylvania. Parents are expected to put the needs of their children above their own and to do everything they can to give their children the support they deserve. The obligation to give one’s child financial support is an ongoing one. Because circumstances may change over time for both the child and his parents, the amount of support owed and even which parent will owe it, may need to be periodically adjusted. These adjustments, or modifications, are necessary to ensure that the child continues to receive the level of support he is entitled to under the law.
Whenever a child or either of his parents experiences a change in circumstances that might require an adjustment of the current child support order, the parent who becomes aware of the change must notify the other parent, as well as the court, by filing a petition for modification of support. The petition must be filed within seven days of the time the change in circumstances occurs, and must describe the change in circumstances in detail. Once each party has had a chance to present evidence related to the claimed change in circumstances, the court may modify the current support order to reflect the change.
To avoid subjecting the parties and the court to additional expense and unnecessary hearings, the court may enter the order of modification in favor of either parent, regardless of which one requested the modification in the first place. It is important to remember, however, that until a new order for child support has been entered, the parent owing support under the current order must continue to make the payments required. Failure to do so can result in penalties, such as fines or even jail time. Current child support orders are vigorously enforced, especially in Pennsylvania, where enforcement is given higher priority than it is in any other state.
The law requires a significant change in the circumstances that existed at the time a child support order was entered before that order can be modified or adjusted. Because the purpose of child support is entirely financial, only changes related to the financial needs of the child or the ability of the parents to pay will be considered. Changes in circumstances that may lead to an adjustment of child support include the following:
When a child’s financial needs have changed in a significant way, a modification of the current child support arrangement may be ordered. For instance, if a child becomes ill or disabled, or grows older and simply requires additional expenditures—and the expenditures are both reasonable and large enough—a court may order an increase in support. If a child reaches the age of 18 or graduates from high school, however, the party paying for the child’s support may petition for an order terminating the obligation when the later of the two events occurs.
Any change that significantly affects a parent’s net income may be considered sufficient to justify an adjustment to a child support order. Examples of such changes include:
An increase in a parent’s necessary expenses (such as unreimbursed medical expenditures) will also affect that parent’s net income and may justify a reduction in the amount he is required to pay. In a more extreme case, if a parent has no assets or income, and cannot reasonably be expected to find employment anytime in the foreseeable future, a court may simply end that parent’s obligation to support.
All of the changes to a parent’s net income that are mentioned above are things that are outside the parent’s control. Income changes that are intentional on the part of a parent will not justify an adjustment to child support. If the court finds, for example, that a parent has deliberately lowered his income, this “change in circumstances” will not lead to an adjustment in that parent’s favor.
It is important to remember that a support obligation is based upon the parents’ ability to pay. If the court finds that a parent has intentionally failed to find or keep an appropriate job, the court is allowed to require that parent to pay the same amount of support he would have been ordered to pay if he had gotten a suitable job. The court defines a suitable job as the sort the parent is capable of getting, considering his level of education, age, health, work experience, and other relevant circumstances— including the state of the economy.
In arriving at an order for child support, the court relies on a state guideline to help determine the amount of support the child is entitled to. This guideline is based on estimates of the average costs of raising a child in households with a particular level of income. Because the costs of raising a child will change over time, the law requires this guideline to be reviewed at least once every four years so it will continue to reflect the most up-to-date child-rearing costs. If a change in the guideline alters the amount a particular child is entitled to by a significant amount, this change may justify an adjustment to the current order of support.
One of the circumstances considered in setting an initial award of child support is the arrangement for the child’s custody in place at the time. Generally, because the parent with primary custody makes his or her contribution to the child’s support by spending money on the child’s everyday needs, that parent is the one who receives the child support payments. When parties share custody equally, the parent with the higher net income will usually be required to pay. For these reasons, any change in the custody arrangement occurring after the most recent support order was entered may be considered a change justifying an adjustment to child support.
Sometimes, an order for child support will be terminated because something in the law makes it illegal to require a particular parent to continue paying support. For instance, state law does not allow a court to require someone to pay child support when the parent’s only source of income is Supplemental Security Income or cash assistance. Similarly, a parent without any source of income cannot be required to pay, because he has no way of meeting his obligation. When a party has no ability to pay a child support obligation, the obligation becomes unenforceable under the law, and the court will order its termination.
The purpose of Pennsylvania’s child support law is to promote the best interests of a child by providing that child with the financial support he would have received if he and his family lived together in the same household. When a current support order no longer accomplishes this purpose, an adjustment to the order must be made so that the child will continue to receive the support to which he is so fundamentally entitled.