Child support is given high priority in Pennsylvania and throughout the country. When one or both parents move from the state in which an initial child support order was entered, the order may still be enforced and modified, so that the child who benefits from the order may receive the financial support to which he is entitled no matter where he and his parents may choose to live.
Which state has the power to modify or enforce child support orders when all or part of a family has relocated can be a complicated question to answer, however. Nationwide enforcement and modification of child support orders is governed by the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), which has been adopted in some form by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Under Pennsylvania law, both parents are required to support their children, though each may do so in a different way. Generally, the parent with whom the child lives for a majority of the time (the custodial parent) satisfies this obligation by providing the child with everyday needs, while the other parent does so by making regular payments to the custodial parent.
If a support order was issued in Pennsylvania and the parent required to make payments (the “payor”) moves to another state, the parent to whom the payments are owed (the “payee”) may need to take steps to locate the payor and have the support order enforced. Through the UIFSA, states cooperate with each other to locate payors and enforce child support orders against them.
Pennsylvania has the power to enforce a Pennsylvania child-support order against a payor who lives out-of-state, as long as Pennsylvania can exercise “long-arm personal jurisdiction” over the payor. Pennsylvania can exercise this jurisdiction over a payor, i.e., commence an action against him or her in a Pennsylvania court, if the payor has had “sufficient contacts” with Pennsylvania.
A payor will have sufficient contacts with the state of Pennsylvania if, for example, the parent lived with the child in Pennsylvania or the child lives in Pennsylvania as a result of the acts or directives of the parent.
If a payor fulfills the sufficient-contacts requirement, an action can be brought against that parent in Pennsylvania court to enforce the child-support order that was previously entered against him.
For example, suppose a child’s mother has been ordered by a Pennsylvania court to pay child support to the child’s father while both parents and the child reside in Pennsylvania. The father and child continue to live in Pennsylvania, but the mother moves to Oregon and stops making support payments. An action to enforce the support order may be brought against the mother in Pennsylvania court, because she lived with the child in Pennsylvania in the past, and thus, has sufficient contacts with the state of Pennsylvania for the state to bring her into court.
When Pennsylvania cannot exercise long-arm personal jurisdiction over a non-resident payor as described above, a different procedure is required. Although the payee who lives in Pennsylvania will not be able to bring the payor into Pennsylvania court to enforce the support order currently in place, he or she may enlist Pennsylvania’s help to start an enforcement action in another state.
In order to begin the process of enforcing the support order in another state, the payee will need to register the existing order in the state in which the payor currently resides. The Pennsylvania child-support enforcement agency will assist the payee in completing the registration process and in notifying the payor of the registration.*
The order will then be enforced by the payor’s state of residence. The order must be enforced as it was written by the Pennsylvania court, however. It cannot be modified by another state’s court as long as either parent or the child continues to live in Pennsylvania. (Rules related to interstate modification of child-support orders are discussed below.)
The enforcement procedure detailed in the paragraph above, would be the same procedure required under the following scenario: An order is entered in Pennsylvania. The payee lives in Pennsylvania, but the payor has never lived in Pennsylvania nor had any other “sufficient contacts” with the state. The UIFSA allows the payee to enlist Pennsylvania’s assistance in registering the order and filing the enforcement action in the payor’s state of residence. The enforcement proceeding will take place in the payor’s state of residence, but the order will be enforced exactly as it was written by the Pennsylvania court.
By the same token, if a non-paying payor has moved to Pennsylvania, and the payee still resides in the state that issued the support order, the payee may register the order in Pennsylvania for purposes of enforcement, and the Pennsylvania courts will enforce the out-of-state order as it was written by the original state court.
If an order was issued in Pennsylvania and the payee moves out of state while the payor remains in Pennsylvania, the enforcement procedure is relatively simple. Pennsylvania continues to have power to enforce the order, because the payor still resides in the issuing state, and no registration is required.
Likewise, if an order was entered in New Jersey and the payor continues to live in New Jersey while the payee moves to Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania will assist the payee in enforcing the order in New Jersey, where the payor resides.
If a child-support order was entered in Pennsylvania and both parents and the child have moved out-of-state, the payee will register the order and file for enforcement in the state in which the payor resides. This will be so if the payee and payor live in the same or different states.
The rules regarding interstate modification are somewhat more complicated than the rules for interstate enforcement. Generally, orders will be enforced wherever the payor is found. This may not be the case when modification, rather than enforcement, is sought.
Under the UIFSA, only one state at a time has the right to modify an existing child support order. This rule is designed to prevent a parent from filing petitions for modification in multiple states until the parent obtains an order that meets his or her satisfaction. For similar reasons, a petition for modification cannot be brought in the state in which the petitioner lives. This is to prevent a parent from moving to a state with support laws more favorable to his position (known as “forum shopping”) and then filing for modification of the current order in that state.
As long as either parent or the child continues to live in the state that issued a child support order, that state is the only state with power to modify the order. This is known as continuing exclusive jurisdiction (CEJ).
If an order for child support was entered in Pennsylvania, for instance, and one parent—either the payee or the payor—continues to live in Pennsylvania while the other lives in Vermont, the action to modify the order must be commenced in Pennsylvania and will follow Pennsylvania law. Unlike a petition for enforcement, which is always brought by the payee, a petition for modification can be brought by either parent.
If both parents and the child have moved from the state that issued a support order, the issuing state loses its jurisdiction (CEJ) to modify that order and the order will need to be modified by another state.**
If both parents move to the same state, the petition will be filed by either parent in the state in which they both reside, and the laws of that state will govern the majority of the court’s decision regarding modification. The issuing state’s law will continue to govern any aspects of the support order that could not have been modified by the issuing state, however.
For example, the duration of a child support order cannot be changed. In Pennsylvania, child support orders generally remain in effect until the child reaches the age of 18 or has graduated from high school, whichever occurs later. The modification of such an order by another state must retain the duration specified by the Pennsylvania court
If each parent lives in a different state (neither of which is the state that issued the order), the petition must be filed in the state in which the person responding to the petition resides. In other words, the parent filing the petition for modification may not file in his or her home state. This is to prevent “forum shopping,” as stated above.
Again, the law of the state in which the petition is filed will govern all aspects of the court’s decision regarding modification, except those related to terms that cannot be modified even by the issuing state, such as the order’s duration.
Let us assume that a support order was entered in Pennsylvania, after which one parent and the child move to Florida and the other parent moves to Wisconsin. If the parent who lives in Wisconsin wishes to have the support order changed, that parent must file for modification in Florida. If the parent who lives in Florida is the one seeking modification, that parent must file in Wisconsin.
The laws of the state in which the petition is filed will control the majority of the court’s decision, but the duration of the order (and any other non-modifiable provisions) must remain the same as that of the Pennsylvania order.
Yet another set of rules applies when both parents (neither of whom lives in the issuing state) wish to file for modification of the child-support order currently in place. If each parent lives in a different state and both have filed petitions for modification, the child’s “home state” *** will be the state with jurisdiction to accept the matter. If no “home state” exists, the state in which the first petition was filed will have the power to modify the order.
The support of your child must be one of your highest priorities. The above discussion touches upon some of the many issues that may arise when parents relocate to different states. The advice of an attorney experienced in child-support matters is crucial to your and your child’s well-being.
*This article is limited to discussion of enforcement through the court system. A payee may also send the support order directly to the enforcement agency, such as the police or sheriff’s office of the receiving state (without registration), which may use an administrative procedure to enforce the obligation.
** The petitioner should register the order for purposes of modification and file a petition for modification at the same time. The process for registering for purposes of modification is essentially the same as that required for enforcement registration.
*** A child’s “home state” is generally defined as the state in which a child lived with a parent or person acting as parent for at least six consecutive months immediately preceding the filing of a petition for support.